Three Peaks (Jan Zabeil, 2017) 4 out of 4 stars.
A 2017 film from German director Jan Zabeil (The River Used to Be a Man), Three Peaks (“Drei Zinnen”) has finally secured an American release, and we are lucky to have it. Gorgeously photographed in the Italian Dolomites – that Alpine range in the north of the country – the movie follows a mother, father and their 8-year-old son on what begins as an idyllic mountain retreat but soon turns as sharply dangerous as the jutting peaks of the landscape. The inciting incident that transforms paradise into peril is young Tristan’s growing disaffection with the adults’ romance. For, you see, neither Lea (mom) nor Aaron (dad) are married; in fact, Aaron is not really Tristan’s father, but merely Lea’s boyfriend of two years. And despite what seems, at first, like a tender bond between boy and man, there is a simmering rage lurking just beneath the surface of Tristan’s developing consciousness. What results is a harrowing, entirely gripping high-stakes, high-altitude drama where microaggressions lead to macro-results.
It starts simply enough, in a swimming pool by a lake, where the trio frolic in the water, Aaron and Tristan trading splashes and bubbles. Too scared to follow the adults down the big water slide, Tristan looks on, blank, as they speed away, laughing in each other’s arms. A sign of trouble ahead? Perhaps, but we have no real inkling, yet, until the three arrive at their mountain cabin, where Tristan receives a call (great cell phone service that high up!) from a man he calls “dad” (in English, no less, since the boy is trilingual, his mother’s tongue French and Aaron’s, German). It’s that interruption that, apparently, recalibrates Tristan’s thinking, confusing what had been the pleasure of the here and now. He slowly transforms from loving stepson to suspicious guardian of his father’s legacy.
Played by Alexander Fehling (Labyrinth of Lies), Aaron is a sensitive soul in a lumberjack’s body, eager for connection with Tristan yet also wary of the grumbling pushback. As Lea, Bérénice Bejo (The Past) expertly conveys her own fraught emotions as she gently mediates the conflict. Tristan is a wily sort, escalating his attacks from obstruction of sex (claiming, perhaps truthfully, that he can’t sleep alone) to a scratch of Aaron’s arm with a saw to a prank with a mousetrap, retreating, when confronted, into the innocence of childhood. Zabeil is always careful to avoid choosing sides, allowing his exceptional actors – Arian Montgomery, as Tristan, ably holding his own opposite the more experience Bejo and Fehling – full reign to explore the many nuances of their characters. It’ this narrative evenhandedness that makes the shocking final third pack such a wallop, as a hike meant to help Aaron and Tristan bond leads to catastrophic consequences. The slow burn of the earlier sequences sets up a well-earned payoff.
The “three peaks” of the title are just that, a summit divided into three cliff faces, each one, as Aaron describes, representing “Papa, mama, child,” the specter of the interloper (Aaron or Tristan’s biological father, depending on one’s point of view) threatening the austere majesty (and harmony) of the mountain. Nothing threatens the beauty of the cinematic Three Peaks, however, the stress of its closing moments notwithstanding. There are no easy solutions in the potential trauma of divorce and remarriage, and we navigate the treacherous terrain at our own peril, young and old, alike. The Dolomites offer the perfect visual metaphor for all such schisms. Only the adaptable ones survive.