When filmmaker Peter Mortimer (The Dawn Wall) encounters an elusive young climber named Marc-André Leclerc, an evolution in free solo mountaineering unfolds. It’s difficult not to compare it to Oscar-winner Free Solo, but as Liam Maguren found out, The Alpinist ends on a note that sets it apart.
Adventure docos have come a long way since Warren Miller first brought the mountains to cinemas in the mid-20th Century. Having climbed its way up to mainstream recognition, there are now dedicated film festivals for all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts—keen runners, cycle nuts, amphibians. Even Miller’s studio continues to pump out visual skiing tours year after year after year.
In 2019, the subgenre knocked the proverbial bastard off when Free Solo won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Not only was it a stirring character piece, with rock-climbing prodigy Alex Honnold proving to be one fascinating personality, it also featured IMAX-quality filmmaking that captured Honnold’s unharnessed 900m ascent up the El Capitan rock face.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this latest feature, The Alpinist, was trying to out-solo Free Solo. It’s a biopic wrapped in a cinematic experience highlighting the actions of a young man who climbs even more absurd heights with no safety ropes. It’s hard not to compare it to the recent Academy Award winner.
It certainly finds an intriguing person to portrait with Marc-André Leclerc, a young climber who actively avoids the limelight (“He doesn’t even have a phone!”). The filmmakers roll with the assumption that you’ve never heard of this seemingly isolated chap, despite the fact he’s routinely free soloed alpine climbs deemed too risky or straight-up impossible by many. Even Honnold thinks this man’s ascents are crazy.
Sure enough, Leclerc’s first wobbly interview confirms his lack of social media savvy. He looks like a deer in headlights and sounds like a laid-back surfer dude who’s never seen camera lighting equipment before. His goofy demeanour and egoless presence feel incredibly refreshing, especially in a world swamped with people using cameras as bike pumps for their own self-image, and will win many audiences over.
He then risks losing some viewers when he decides to go AWOL during production, forcing co-director Peter Mortimer to explain why they’re playing Where’s Wally with the subject of their film. Projects like this documentary help fund Leclerc’s climbing endeavours, and while many—Mortimer included—will blow his actions off as an endearing code of his character, others will likely find Leclerc to be plain rude.
In between those moments, Leclerc’s sheltered life and lack of camera experience do hit storytelling limits. While his recollections of childhood with ADHD explain his eventual attachment to climbing, he seems unable to paint a compelling introspective picture of his growth or articulate his continued passion in an enthralling way, leaving those closest to Leclerc to fill the void. In comparison to Free Solo, or Mortimer’s excellent 2017 film The Dawn Wall, the personal journey here comes up a bit short.
Some actions speak louder than words though, and when you see Leclerc’s vertigo-inducing feats in action, it’s deafening, and the filmmakers know how to soak up that tense exhilaration for the big screen. Angles stretch wide. Heights feel magnified. Shots are painfully long. When Leclerc climbs a 100m frozen waterfall with nothing but a pickaxe lodged in ice holding him up, a simple wobble of his foot makes you flinch more than most on-screen explosions.
It’s undeniably awe-inspiring stuff but The Alpinist remains a biopic—not a promotional piece. As such, it spends a significant amount of time reinforcing the abundant risks of the sport in general (half of the world’s top alpinists end up dying in the mountains), ending on a hard-to-shake note that sets it apart from Free Solo and The Dawn Wall.
Neither demonising nor endorsing Leclerc’s passion, Mortimer and co-director Nick Rosen leave it up to audiences to access the risks versus the rewards of adventuring. It’s a necessary balance, especially in the adventure film festival market overflowing with influencer-styled promotion for North Face apparel and (admittedly delicious) Clif Bars.
But even if you never intend to walk to the dairy let alone up a mountain, The Alpinist still delivers an entertaining, brain-feeding and sometimes nerve-shredding 90-minute cinematic experience. And while Leclerc’s thrilling endeavours say more about him than his words do, his humble nature and innate kindness to strangers end up saying the most about him—more than enough to forgive his lack of kindness towards production schedules.