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CANNES — To give away what happens near the end of the French drama, Bird People, would likely spoil it, although this eccentric art house item from director Pascale Ferran (Lady Chatterley) is hardly the kind of movie that will have fanboys going ballistic. Suffice to say that the title reveals enough, while the story — set mostly in an airport Hyatt, where the lives of an American businessman and French chambermaid overlap but rarely come face-to-face — is brimming with ideas about solitude in the modern world, using a bifurcated narrative to follow two characters whose destinies will be determined by fate, willpower and a touch of the supernatural. It’s a tricky proposition that will surely ruffle the feathers of many viewers, but one that also makes a curious, if lasting, impression, thanks in part to strong turns from actors Anais Demoustier and Josh Charles.
Returning to the Croisette after winning the Camera d’Or prize in 1993 with her debut feature, Petits arrangements avec les morts, Ferran hails from the same graduating film class as Cannes favorite Arnaud Desplechin (whose La Sentinelle she co-wrote). But with only two other theatrical features under her belt, including the Cesar-winning D. H. Lawrence adaptation, Lady Chatterley, she’s had far less exposure on the international circuit, with Bird People being her first effort in eight years. While a strong cast and slot in the Un Certain Regard sidebar should guarantee some play abroad, this offbeat (and rather overlong) entry is not an easy sell, though it could attract gutsy distributors willing to take a risk on something different.
Divided into two sections — one tracking a visiting U.S. executive, Gary (Charles), the other a twenty-something student, Audrey (Demoustier) — the story (by Ferran and Guillaume Breaud, Le Petit lieutenant) initially offers the hope of turning into a candid, Franco-American romance à la Zoe Cassavetes’ Broken English, and then delivers something else entirely. Though it never quite reneges on its first promise, either.
After an opening sequence set inside a train en route to Charles de Gaulle airport, and during which Audrey’s fascination with a sparrow outside her window is a premonition of what’s to come, we cut to Gary as he arrives in Paris and heads to the Hyatt, where he’ll be staying overnight to attend a meeting before flying off to Dubai.
But what’s appears to be a routine business trip soon transforms into a life-altering stopover as Gary decides to quit his job, sell his stock, and leave his wife, Elisabeth (Radha Mitchell), and kids behind in San Francisco. Why he does this is never fully clear, despite hints provided by a voiceover (from Mathieu Amalric) and a heavy-handed Skype discussion with Elisabeth that goes on for way longer than anyone needs it to.
Yet what’s telling is how Ferran sets Gary’s ordeal within the anonymous, vacuum-sealed hotel room, surrounding him with discarded room service trays and minibar bottles, with a view looking out onto the gloomy tarmac of CDG. Not unlike Julianne Moore dry-heaving inside her asepticized McMansion in Todd Haynes’ Safe, Gary seems to be suffocating under the weight of contemporary life, and prefers to escape its clutches before time runs out. At least that’s one way to see it.
After the Gary debacle, we cut back to the sad yet sprightly Audrey as she shows up for another work shift at the Hyatt. Tracking her in a way that recalls Benoit Jacquot trailing Virginie Ledoyen in A Single Girl, we watch Audrey cleaning room after room until she stumbles upon that of Gary, who’s decided to stay on for a few extra days until figuring out his next move.
Those viewers now expecting a cute meet-and-greet between the two wayward souls will have another thing coming, as Ferran proceeds to throw a major curveball at the audience that will be surprising for anyone who hasn’t previously read about it. While not revealing details here, one can say that it makes impressive use of camera drones, visual effects (supervised by Geoffrey Niquet) and brings to mind the transformation of the heroes in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady.
Otherwise, it’s a rather hard concept to swallow, at least at first, although things come around enough in the final minutes to partially justify such a strange narrative leap. But why Ferran decided to take things in that direction is anyone’s guess, and although the late sequences are well handled and fascinating to watch, they’re so far out in left field that’s its rather difficult to find one’s way back.
On the other hand, it’s possible to see the twist in Bird People as just a playful metaphor for humans literally hopping out of their shells, deepening the film’s two-way melange of fantasy and realism, hope and despair, girl and guy, French and American. To that extent, the performances by Demoustier (The French Minister, Elles) and The Good Wife star Charles go a long way in making the story palpable, with the former offering up a glowing presence undercut with moments of doe-eyed distress, and the latter playing a character who seems to be watching his own existential crisis with a distant smirk.
Tech credits are pro across the board, with ace DP Julien Hirsch (The Girl on the Train) using warm color combinations to add intimacy to all the impersonal decors. Production designer Thierry Francois (Do Not Disturb) deserves further credit for turning the faceless world of a major international airport into one of both profound melancholy and constant discovery.
Production companies: Archipel 35, France 2 Cinema, Titre et Structure Production
Cast: Anais Demoustier, Josh Charles, Roschdy Zem, Camelia Jordana
Director: Pascale Ferran
Screenwriters: Pascale Ferran, Guillaume Breaud
Producer: Denis Freyd
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Thierry Francois
Costume designer: Anais Romand
Editor: Mathilde Muyard
Visual effects supervisor: Geoffrey Niquet
Music: Beatrice Thiriet
Sales agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 128 minutes
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