The three peaks referred to in the title of Jan Zabeil’s briefly intense yet only moderately disturbing film of the same name are both its setting — a mountain in the Dolomites with three side-by-side summits — and a metaphorical representation for its three main characters: Lea (Bérénice Bejo); her boyfriend of two years, Aaron (Alexander Fehling); and Lea’s son by her ex-husband, the 8-year-old Tristan (Arian Montgomery).
Or, as Tristan puts it: Daddy, Mommy and child. “Perhaps,” says Aaron, unconvincingly.
While on a vacation trip to a mountain cabin, Aaron is otherwise only too willing for Tristan to accept him as the boy’s new, or second father. But Lea thinks that’s inappropriate, and that clear lines need to be drawn about relationships in this extended family, whose parameters are made clear — or, rather, blurry — by too-frequent phone calls from the boy’s father. Tristan, for his part, is giving Aaron mixed signals, playfully (almost tauntingly) calling Aaron “Daddy” at one point, and then tormenting him at others: setting off a mousetrap by Aaron’s bedside, “accidentally” cutting him with a saw and then very deliberately removing his shoelaces during a hike. At other points, Tristan’s behavior borders on the psychopathic.
The movie only gradually builds up to that point, however, spending much of its first two acts in quieter domestic drama that reveals the almost invisible fault lines in this blended family. If Tristan has mixed feelings about Aaron, it’s mutual: Aaron admits to Lea that although he loves Tristan like his own son, there are times when he wishes the kid wasn’t there.
Be careful what you wish for.
The thriller-ish aspects to “Three Peaks” crescendo during an early-morning hike by Aaron and Tristan to watch the sun rise. (Lea has stayed in bed.) It is during that hike that some harsh words are exchanged, and worse. Don’t worry; this isn’t a horror movie, but Zabeil builds up some nicely nerve-racking tension, in a way that is made less effective by Tristan’s behavior, which is at times more abominable than is strictly necessary to get the point across.
All three actors deliver nuanced performances, and the scenery is beautiful, if also harrowing, in a story that forgoes the use of music to gin up suspense (that is, other than the playing of the cabin’s convenient organ in one or two scenes).
“Three Peaks” is not a devastating film like “Force Majeure” — another mountain-set foreign film about the exposure of fissures in a family dynamic — but it is a satisfying one. There’s just enough closure to its inconclusive climax to allow you to relax, even if it doesn’t give you much to terribly ponder during the drive home.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains brief sensuality, scenes of a child in jeopardy and a serious injury. In German, French and English with subtitles. 94 minutes.