By Alex McPherson
A nerve-shredding documentary spotlighting a one-of-a-kind athlete, “The Alpinist” cements itself as an imperfect, yet consistently moving watch.
The film, brought to us from “The Dawn Wall” directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, follows a fairly goofy, unassuming 23-year-old named Marc André Leclerc, who quickly and quietly rose through the ranks of professional climbers to become one of the all-time greats. Leclerc relishes the solo climb, preferably without much safety equipment or anyone accompanying him on his escapades.
Since childhood, Leclerc found climbing to be a welcome escape from the cacophony of daily life and an opportunity to embrace living in the moment, dangling from scarily high places where a single misjudged movement could cause his demise.
Leclerc’s also not fond of media attention, residing with his girlfriend, Brette Harrington, in a tent in southwestern British Columbia. While it’s surprising that Leclerc agrees to participate in the documentary, the filmmakers proceed to capture his insane feats traversing huge geographic landmarks in Canada, Patagonia, and beyond, as much as they can, while seeking to understand his mindset.
Featuring camerawork sure to render viewers scared of heights clenching their stomachs in nausea, but leave everyone else completely awe-inspired, “The Alpinist” is chock full of staggering sequences where we observe a master at work. Cinematographers Jonathan Griffith, Austin Siadak, and Brett Lowell display Leclerc’s Spider-Man-esque abilities conquering sheer mountain faces — sometimes requiring adaptations from rock to ice, snow, and back again on a single climb.
They zoom out the camera to render him a miniscule speck amidst beautifully imposing surroundings. The truly memorable images, though, come from Leclerc himself, who records on a GoPro — the background music fading away as we watch him navigate his largely unrehearsed climbing routes with a shockingly calm demeanor, completely absorbed in his craft. It’s frankly spellbinding to witness.
“The Alpinist” balances these terrifying moments with a relatively cerebral approach to storytelling throughout. Indeed, Leclerc is filmed with an almost spiritual aura, a man full of enthusiasm following his own, insatiably ambitious path. Containing interviews with Leclerc’s loved ones and fellow climbing peers, including a grizzled climbing guru named Hevy Duty, we get a portrait of a reclusive, amiable individual who’s not in it for the glory, but for inner satisfaction and happiness. His love for alpinism and his personable nature make him a more relatable subject than most other famous athletes. He seems like a laid-back dude, who just so happens to crave putting his life on the line alone on a regular basis — much to the frustration of the directors when he goes AWOL about halfway through the runtime.
“The Alpinist” can’t quite escape the sense that we’re only breaching the surface of Leclerc’s personality, however. The collection of interviewees are fun to watch as they discuss Leclerc’s grandiose achievements, but they often shy away from addressing the perilousness of his lifestyle, scared to consider the dark possibilities that might lie ahead. If viewers go into the film knowing what transpires, some might take issue with the way this film invades Leclerc’s privacy in its finale, and hides the timeline of certain interviews for suspenseful effect later on.
Similarly, the overarching message of pursuing your dreams to the fullest, no matter how infeasible they might seem, doesn’t ring hollow by any means, but feels slightly superficial for such a distinctive subject as Leclerc. Still, Leclerc’s dedication deserves to be recognized, and “The Alpinist” triumphs in this respect. While he remains mysterious, this is a heartfelt piece of filmmaking. It’s an earnest tribute to a courageous, adventurous human being.
“The Alpinist” is a 2021 documentary directed by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, and starring Marc-Andre Leclerc. It runs 1 hour, 33 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some strong language and brief drug use. It opens in theaters on Sept. 10. Alex’s Grade:B+.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.