The Bipedal Advantage: Guiraudie Returns to Vaguely Pernicious Themes
After his 2013 breakout success with Stranger By the Lake, a nod to France’s Hitchcockian forefather Claude Chabrol as it concerns a killer nesting within a secluded gay cruising community, Alain Guiraudie returns with the highly anticipated Staying Vertical. Those newly accustomed to the filmmaker may be taken aback by this surreal, seriocomic waking nightmare about a filmmaker turned vagabond whose sexual identity defies labels nearly as brazenly as this narrative eludes explanation. But this latest effort feels more like an efficiently polished return to the director’s themes from earlier titles, where pernicious, peripheral villains constantly threaten distinctively rural settings. Though ultimately less shocking than what one might expect (and arguably less effective), Guiraudie also provides several provocative moments with a film presenting sex as a revolving gateway between life and death.
Leo (Damien Bonnard) is, assumedly, an established filmmaker, at least as evidenced by an agent calling frequently to ask for a copy of a new screenplay. Instead, the ambling drifter deposits himself in the French countryside. Driving down a desolate dirt road, he spots a handsome young man, Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), who lives with a cantankerous old man (Christian Bouillette). Leo offers the youth a chance to star in films, but is quickly rebuffed. Moving on, he accosts a young shepherdess, Maria (India Hair), who lives alone with her father (Rapahel Thiery) and two young sons. It seems wolves have been attacking their flock and she dreams of leaving behind her father’s dilapidated land. They quickly become lovers, and rather than complete his screenplay, Leo fritters away his time with Maria and attempted visits to Yoan, who he learns is the lover and caretaker of the old man, though he often steals the man’s savings to gallivant. Maria becomes pregnant and bears Leo a child, but becomes fed up with Leo’s obliviousness, taking off with the other two kids, leaving him alone with his son and her father (who harbors erotic sentiments for Leo). Soon, Leo becomes unable to maintain control over his existence.
Obviously, much of Staying Vertical is meant to be examined metaphorically, its title getting a direct reference to indicate walking upright without fear is the only way to avoid the savagery of the wolves. But it’s also a way to stay constantly moving, an indication of life vs. certain sedentary death. Leo is first presented in allegiance with the wolves slaughtering the sheep, a filmmaker who descends upon the countryside and altering the realities of those he encounters there, first as a sexual conquistador. Guiraudie includes an equal display of male and female genitalia this time around, including an actual birth sequence. But this seems child play compared to a piece de resistance of gerontophilic death-by-fucking euthanasia set atmospherically to Pink Floyd.
Filled with moments of offbeat humor (including Leo’s trips to see a female medicine woman living in a hut in the woods who hooks him up to foliage to read his vitals) and elliptical references which makes the film seem like a warped fairy tale, divisive responses (and walkouts) are to be expected. Though not quite as heady as something like 2003’s No Rest for the Brave, Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical reinforces his fascination with debauched (in more ways than one) narratives, and while he remains a filmmaker destined to appeal to distinctive tastes, he’s lost none of his particularly generous ambitions regarding the fluidity of sexuality as an act of not just pleasure or procreation, but also kindness.
Reviewed on May 12th at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival – Main Competition. 100 Mins.