Points of Entry
By Michael Koresky

Staying Vertical
Dir. Alain Guiraudie, France, Strand Releasing

Writing on the topic of subversive cinema in 1974, Amos Vogel wrote, “Thematically, the simplifications of realism have been left behind: concern with the human condition has not. We are inundated by ambiguity, allegory and complexity, by an existentialist humanism devoid of certainty or illusion.” Things are different today; we could say that realism has definitively returned, in all its simplifications. Ambiguity, allegory, and complexity have been supplanted by the desire for brutal directness, a need for representation of authenticity and truth in a world globalized into indistinctness. Even the films that offer the least thematic clarity seem to feel the need to make their nebulous cases loudly and plainly. This might be why Staying Vertical, the very strange new film from French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie, comes across as surreal but not ambiguous.

Guiraudie’s film is part of a spate of recent, essentially narrative art films that ask us to identify with characters only to continually reject our ability to do so by forcing those characters to act and react illogically to the world around them. Carlos Reygadas’s Post tenebras lux or Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, for instance, function as dreamscapes without much to hold on to outside of their impressive conceptual structures. Jumping from one plane to another, they’re internalized but not always legible as interior portraits. This makes them different from ostensibly surreal films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Claire Denis’s L’intrus: in each, the flights of fancy that send their narratives off into the ether are tangibly tagged to a specific, tenable character’s subjectivity, to memory or love or fear or guilt, and thus constantly grounded in experience.

Alain Guiraudie’s films are of the former type, less interested in spontaneity and fluidity than a grand overall scheme. By design, there’s little liberation to be had from his films, their points about desire and identity take precedence over behavior and motivation. In such early films as That Old Dream That Moves and especially No Rest for the Brave, Guiraudie introduces characters who move through emotionally legible situations only to be abandoned by their creator (meaning Guiraudie, for these films appear to be wholly secular) to strangely unmotivated actions. There’s a pliable, whatever-way-the-wind-blows nature to the people in them—to use an iconic cinematic example, they’re less existential figures of alienation than the half-sculpted pieces on a handcrafted chessboard being considered and moved around by those alienated figures. Guiraudie’s breakthrough from 2013, Stranger by the Lake, appealed to a slightly wider audience partly because he applied his approach to a recognizable Hitchcockian genre template, and because he replaced his usual, seemingly stream-of-consciousness narrative sprawl with a newly pleasing geometric precision reliant on visual and compositional repetition.

All of this is preface for trying to describe the odd experience of watching Staying Vertical, an aggressively conceptual cycle-of-life saga that brings the director back to his earlier model, in which characters ramble through a freeform narrative with no fidelity to logic, and their every move speaks to an overall design more than moment-to-moment intuition—very little in the film makes behavioral sense, leading to a sense of fragmentation. For a while, the film has a pleasingly casual forward motion. It’s summer, and Léo (Damien Bonnard) is making his way through the countryside, meeting a string of characters who will prove to be recurring. The first encounter, with Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), a cute young man with wolflike features somewhat similar to his own, whom he spots on a rural road and approaches, telling him he has a face made for the big screen, would seem to imply Léo’s preference for boys. Soon enough, though, after being brushed off by Yoan and hiking through rolling hills and forest with no discernible destination, Léo meets Marie (India Hair), an earthy shepherdess and single mother with two kids. Though she must constantly protect her flock from wolves, and Léo suspiciously voices his partiality for the lupine, she invites him into her home for a bout of intense sex. Soon enough though, he’s staying for an extended spell, helping watch the kids, a sudden domesticity in a restful, bucolic setting. After a quick cut, Guiraudie brings us back to an urban, claustrophobic apartment, where Léo is hunched over a typewriter.

Though we initially take him as mere drifter—he says as much—we come to discover he is a filmmaker writing a new script, which happens to begin exactly how Staying Vertical starts, on that rural road en route to the country where he spotted Yoan. Perhaps the wanderings and encounters we’ve seen thus far are methods of research for Léo; perhaps they’re just to clear his mind. Either way, knowledge of his profession lends the film an idea that Léo is in creative control of his destiny, writing his journey. Any grounding we may suddenly have that we’re watching a simple metafiction, though, drops out from under us. Soon, it’s autumn, and Léo’s back on the same path, stopping at the house on the road where he first met Yoan. The house is owned by the elderly Marcel (Christian Bouillette), who claims that Yoan is not his son but a thief he forced to live there to work off the debt he owes him. As before, Léo leaves this place and makes his way to the farm, where Marie invites the wolfish man back in. Without warning, Marie is giving birth to Léo’s baby, which is revealed in a shock cut to a live birth in immense close-up, which functions as a graphic match (in all senses of the term) to the film’s earlier, sexualized close-ups of Marie’s genitals. Guiraudie, whose last film was something of a visual paean to the scrotum, again shows that he is as intrigued by the physical tools of desire as the cerebral discussion of it.

Now a father, Léo finds a new calling, although just when one might expect the film to settle into a more domesticated routine, it proceeds to fly further off the rails. He becomes more wayward, responding to his new paternal duties by shirking responsibilities, both to Marie and the movie producer looking for a draft of his script. He eventually absconds with the baby, rowing upstream into a mythical forest, relating his parental fears to a woodland psychiatrist while affixed to electrode plant pods. He then finds himself forced to protect the child from scowling, bulbous shepherd Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thierry), Marie’s father, who tries to use the infant as bait for the wolves that keep massacring his flock. And he starts to again pursue Yoan, though his attention is then diverted to the craggy, racist, and lonely Marcel. Amidst all this, the baby wails into the dark night.

That Jean-Louis and Marcel both become potential love interests, or at least sexual beings, for Léo speaks to the film’s increasingly surprising and free-floating pseudo-erotic energy, leading to a climactic moment of gerontophilic transgression: a Pink Floyd–accompanied assisted-suicide fuck, which brings the film conceptually full circle from birth to death while at the same time serving to further confound viewers who may have already given up hope for sure footing. These various strands seem to lead to something about the unpredictable topography of new millennial sexuality, the fluidity of gender roles, the anxiety of new parenthood, and, finally, the complete deconstruction of the nuclear family—one that is reconstituted essentially without a mother. Staying Vertical is thus provocatively queer, even though it often feels like that’s all it is. Because each scene plays more like a new, self-contained panel than a reasonable continuation of what came before, the film exists on its own wavelength of aggressive playfulness, an idea of its own subversion. Léo’s bizarre, circular journey is open-ended but ultimately rigid; never predictable but predetermined all the same.