'Three Peaks' Looks Beautiful But Falls Flat
It’s pretty easy to tell that Jan Zabeil, the director of Three Peaks, has been a cinematographer until now. Three Peaks is his first feature as director, and visually it’s beautiful and often delicate, and also way ahead of other things like how he builds his story.
Most of the film takes place in the mountains in Northern Italy called The Dolomites, with gorgeous shots of late day light on gray stone peaks shooting towards the sky, and sheer white cliffs with rock fields below them.
The subject is a family – a mother with a young son of about 10, and her second husband. After a few moments in a swimming pool by a lake, which has implications for later, the three head into the mountains. They have a cabin up there, and if you like the mountains and wish you had a cabin, this would be it. It looks as if no one’s been there in a while, but the cabin is pristine – it’s clean and neat, no mice, shelves full of books, plenty of firewood, and more food than these folks could ever have packed in. And to top it all off, there are no other people in these mountains. Not so bad.
There aren’t many filmmakers who really believe that the natural world is where human beings can best work out their problems. Robert Redford trusts the wilderness and the light out there to make it possible for people to get re-balanced. And so does Jan Zabeil in Three Peaks, although he mutes the rough, maybe healing force of wilderness with the comfort of the cabin.
This family has things to work out- as in what is second husband Aaron’s relationship to his wife Lea’s son Tristan. The characters speak three languages in the film, but late one night Aaron confides his struggle to Lea in English:
"I love him… and in the next moment I feel like he’s suffocating me…"
So far, so okay, but writer/director Zabeil has adventure in mind and as a screenwriter he’s a lot more contrived and obvious than the riot of rock scree, glaciers and fog out there where the characters are destined to go. Of course there’s a mountain with three peaks on it, and in case you don’t notice it, Tristan names them for the three members of the family. The water at the start of the picture plays a role later, as do cell phones, echoes, Tristan’s little hostilities towards Aaron and a bunch of other doodads the film lays out in its early minutes for use later on. When Russian playwright Anton Chekov made his over-quoted comment that if you show a gun in act one, it had better go off in act two, he didn’t mean that every object on the wall in act one has to go off later. So pretty soon, this almost graceful family drama heads into adventureland, where the movie does not prosper.
American big-budget action films are usually a lot better than their European counterparts. Americans do better car chases and better crises in the mountains with helicopters and stuff like that. American studio movies don’t get tangled in the subtleties of their metaphors – the action is the thing, the metaphors can follow. But all the way to its end, Three Peaks still wants to be that subtle family story it abandons in its last half hour, with people worrying about how they relate to each other and what is best for the child. Action adventure may end the problem, but it doesn’t solve it.
You start worrying about plausibility, and when that happens the movie’s lost contact with its audience. Director Zabeil directed a few shorts before he made Three Peaks, which looks like two short films jammed together. Maybe they should have stayed apart.