‘The Summit of the Gods’ (‘Le Sommet des Dieux’): Film Review


The beauty of The Summit of the Gods, a breathtaking animated feature about a photojournalist’s mission to crack a Mount Everest mystery, is achieved through its less profound moments. Like the close shot of a brooding character leaning over a bridge drinking from a glistening beer bottle. Or one of a nondescript hand depositing a beige envelope into a fire-red mailbox with the dim yellows and greens of a near slumbering city in the backdrop. Backed by a stirring score (composed by Amin Bouhafa), these junctures enliven a film that perfectly captures the delirious pull of pursuing a singular vision.

Directed by Patrick Imbert (The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales), The Summit of the Gods is a visual treat wrapped in a compelling story. The script, co-written with Jean-Charles Ostorero and Magali Pouzol, is based on a popular manga series of the same name by Jiro Taniguch and Baku Yumemakura. The mammoth five-volume narrative, which Imbert and his team cut down to a brisk 90 minutes, follows Fukamachi Makoto, a Japanese photojournalist who becomes obsessed with figuring out if the legendary English mountaineer George Mallory was the first person to scale Everest in 1924. The question leads him on an amateur investigation to find Habu Joji, a climber who Fukamachi believes knows the answer.

The Summit of the Gods

The Bottom Line

A visual treat enhanced by its engaging story.

Release date: Nov. 24 (select theaters), Nov. 30 (Netflix)
Cast: Eric Herson-Macarel, Damien Boisseau, Lazare Herson-Macarel, Elisabeth Ventura, Philippe Vincent
Director: Patrick Imbert
Screenwriters: Patrick Imbert, Jean-Charles Ostoréro, Magali Pouzol, Baku Yumemakura (based on the manga by), Jirô Taniguchi (based on the manga by)

1 hour 35 minutes

The film opens with lines that both serve as a literal description of mountaineering and capture the existential energy of following obsessions: “Walking. Climbing. More climbing. Always higher. And for what?” the voice muses. That “And for what?” haunts the beginning sequence as the film moves from a fictionalized scene of George Mallory and his partner Andrew Irvine disappearing into the snowy mountain to Fukamachi (voiced by Damien Boisseau), decades later, photographing a Japanese team of climbers slowly scaling the southwest face of Everest. They never make it to the summit, leaving Fukamachi visibly frustrated. He struggles to find meaning in his work and sees his job as a magazine photographer as mostly pointless.

When a stranger tries to sell the photojournalist a camera he claims belonged to Mallory, Fukamachi, so subsumed by his own feelings, angrily shoos him away. It’s not until he sees the same peddler in a heated exchange with a person whom Fukamachi believes to be Habu (Eric Herson-Macarel), a reclusive mountaineer, that he begins to think better of his earlier rejection. Perhaps there is a story there. Invigorated by the potential scoop, the enterprising photographer tries to convince his editor (Philippe Vincent) to commission it.

Finding Habu makes up a good chunk of The Summit of the Gods, giving the film a structure that balances Fukamachi’s present-day research with scenes from Habu’s life. Each time the photojournalist scours the archives or conducts an interview with a friend of Habu’s, a clearer portrait of the mysterious mountaineer emerges and its parallels to Fukamachi’s life become more obvious. They are both searching for meaning in their crafts. For Habu, climbing is akin to breathing. He spent his most active years seeking a modicum of recognition for his abilities, but it never worked out. Success eluded him, and he spent most of his life watching other — sometimes less skilled climbers — win.

Habu’s harrowing climbs, stunningly depicted, recall those of the professional rock climber Alex Honnold in the anxiety-inducing but equally breathtaking documentary Free Solo. Part of that film’s appeal stemmed from its satisfying attempts to translate what drives people like Honnold to pursue dangerous feats. The “And for what?” applies here, too, but thinking about that film alongside The Summit of the Gods does make you wonder if that is even the right question.

The film suggests another, more tantalizing inquiry: “Why not?” Habu’s climbs are impressive feats against nature and flirtations with chance. If the sun does not make a long enough appearance one day to melt the snow, if the ice remains too slippery, if the winds are too strong, the chances of a failed mission and personal disappointment increase. The climbs are also tests of the mind: How much brutalization from the elements are you willing to take?

The doubts, thrills and crushing lows that come with the territory are heightened by Imbert and his team’s (which includes Gaëlle Thierry as animation director) deft animation techniques. 2D never looked so good. While the characters themselves are rendered quite simply, their backgrounds sing, especially during climbs. Scenes of Habu holding on to the edge of an alp are cut with shots of a brilliant twinkling night sky or the mountains at dusk, suffused with purple and pink gradations. If you can watch on a big screen — and really, you should — these moments capture a slice of nature’s beauty.

Fukamachi eventually tracks down Habu and their first encounter is appropriately frosty: Habu does not want to be bothered, but Fukamachi, now obsessed with a man he thinks he knows, would like to ask him a question. The latter’s persistence eventually cracks the veteran mountaineer, who agrees to do a climb for the eager photographer to document. As the two artists work on their craft — Habu’s methodical climbing and Fukamachi’s focused photos — their relationship evolves gracefully. An intimate third act unfolds, and The Summit of the Gods subtly shifts its perspective. Suddenly, Fukamachi is not just a spectator of Habu’s life, but an understanding friend.

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