Not unlike the 2018 Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo (whose subject, Alex Honnold, is featured prominently in this film), The Alpinist is not just about a solo climber and what motivates him to take such absurd risks simply to climb a peak that no one else has done before, or at least not in the way that he has done it. The film centers on perhaps the only solo climber in history who largely avoided publicity or allowed himself to be filmed, which in no way stopped the reputation of Canadian Marc-André Leclerc from growing exponentially up until the point where a film crew meets him at age 23.
Unlike Honnold’s soloing of rock faces, Leclerc preferred snow and ice, often with rock just under the surface, making the terrain especially treacherous. It should go without saying that the footage captured by directors Peter Mortimer (The Dawn Wall) and Nick Rosen is both stunning and stomach-turning, as we are shown the climber’s seemingly effortless ascensions, while also being mesmerized by sequences in which we see him inch his way up a seemingly unscalable rock or ice surface and make it look easy.
As one might expect, the filmmakers interview Leclerc’s girlfriend, mother, friends and climbing peers to discover what makes the subject tick, but also what makes him shun the spotlight as eagerly has other climbers crave it. He attempts to explain his passion for climbing and how it combines healthy doses of extreme living and meditative practices for an experience that soothes his soul while intensifying his experience. Perhaps even more than Free Solo did, The Alpinist allows us to peer into the method by which the climber’s mind works, both during the ascension and at all points leading up to it (it should be noted that Leclerc frequently leaves the camera crew for days while he attempts another mountain with no witnesses). The movie is an interesting balancing act between giving the subject the space he requires and capturing some of the boldest climbs in history.
The film features a brief tutorial on the history of alpine climbing and how much riskier it is than standard-issue free soloing. Sadly, The Alpinist also has more story to tell once the cameras were turned off and editing the film began. And somewhere in between, we learn how a socially awkward, publicity-shy adventurer made so many friends, had a wonderful, long-term relationship, and kept his ambitions and next projects quiet from all but his closest confidantes. He wasn’t being secretive, but he did believe that a solo climb can’t be truly solo with cameras around him. When you boil it down, Leclerc’s life was simple: he loved to climb. The fact that he was so skilled at it—as this film provides ample evidence to support—was simply a coincidence and meant less to him than just being out in nature, the elements, and in the thinnest of air. He redrew the lines of what was possible in the world of climbing, and he appeared to be the nicest of guys doing it. Marc-André Leclerc would have blushed at the idea of being a hero, but he certainly made no bones about living his life to the fullest.
The Alpinist is an exceptional documentary for many reasons, chief among them is how it captures the simple elegance of a life lived simply. It’s easy to be envious of Leclerc’s sense of self, even if it’s damn near impossible to want to join him on one of his unique brand of nature hikes.
The film is now playing theatrically, including at the AMC River East.
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