Mount Everest is really tall (and it’s growing). It’s cold. There’s snow and stuff. Occasionally that snow leaps off the soaring cliffs and crags and tries to kill you. Other times, the meager ridgelines weakly supporting your feet spontaneously disassemble, again in an attempt to kill you. Even oxygen, our otherwise ubiquitous companion in life, doesn’t like to venture to those heights.
And every year, people fling themselves up there, risking life and limb on a torturous escapade, all to stand on top of the biggest pile of rocks in the world.
The French animated film “The Summit of the Gods” asks the question at the forefront of every sane mind:
Adapted by Patrick Imbert (“The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales”) from Jirô Taniguchi’s manga series (itself an adaptation of Baku Yumemakura’s novel of the same name), the film follows photojournalist and climber Fukamachi Makoto (Damien Boisseau, “Samsam”). Fukamachi specializes in photographing the world of mountaineering. This means participating in the very sport he seeks to cover, often hiking out along alternative routes to get the perfect shot of a perfect ascent. And for every mountaineer, the perfect ascent can only be one thing: Everest. After a failed attempt at the summit, he stumbles across something even more tantalizing than a few choice photos of victorious summiteers: Habu Joji (Eric Herson-Macarel, “Oxygen”), a famed alpinist long-ago disappeared, lugging around what might just be a camera from the ill-fated first attempt at summiting Everest in 1924.
“Summit of the Gods” thus unfolds like many movies before it: A journalist searches for the truth, carefully reconstructing the life of a tortured soul. What differentiates “Summit” from other films of the same nature is that Fukamachi is not simply an observer who learns a cute little lesson by the end of things; he is not just a vessel for the audience. The movie is as much Fukamachi’s as it is Habu’s. As he doggedly investigates the events of Habu’s life leading up to his disappearance, the film becomes one of twin tales. Habu chases greater and greater heights (literally), becoming increasingly (figuratively) distant from those around him; all the while, Fukamachi himself is chasing his journalistic quarry with the same obsessive fervor.
The film has two modes that it vacillates between. Suctioned to the side of a mountain, a gripping, chilling tension will have your teeth tightly gritted and fingers firmly clenched. When feet are rooted to the ground, a potent sense of ennui emerges as characters find themselves increasingly alienated by dissatisfaction with the otherwise mundane nature of life. Both modes are anchored by a heavy fidelity to realism. Everest is subject to much mythmaking, but “Summit” strips the mountain of any sense of romanticism. These aren’t adventurers cavorting up and down slopes and committing great acts of derring-do in service of human exceptionalism — they’re near-mad disciples of an indifferent god slogging through a miserable, protracted experience in one of the least hospitable places on Earth.
The art style services this point nicely — while the mountainous terrain is rendered gorgeously, it’s nearly devoid of any style. Save for a couple of lurid sequences meant to represent the psychic toll Everest can take, the animation is unflinchingly boring and realistic. For a medium whose greatest strength lies in its ability to do what live-action cannot (admittedly, it is hard to film on Everest), one can be left wanting just a little bit more artistic oomph in a time-hopping tale so thoroughly interested in the psychology of the obsessed.
The lesson that is indelibly imprinted by the end of the film is that those who choose to climb Everest are hopelessly, miserably, enviably cray-cray. It’s not romantic, it’s not heroic and for all the staggering heights it’s barely even uplifting. But like many human endeavors, there is beauty.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at email@example.com.