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After the intentionally claustrophobic confinement to just a beach and its nearby bushes in his 2013 breakout hit Stranger by the Lake, French auteur Alain Guiraudie returns to the more loose-limbed pleasures of his earlier work for his first Cannes competition entry, the suggestively titled Staying Vertical (Rester vertical). Most reminiscent of his 2009 film The King of Escape, his latest throws together a series of queer men, all fathers or would-be caretakers, in a pastoral countryside straight out of a dark fairytale, with wolves a constant threat for the seemingly innocent herds of sheep. Arthouse audiences who are only familiar with Stranger might initially be thrown, as that film’s suspense element and single location made for a much more compact and easily readable package. But more adventurous viewers will nonetheless be charmed by this delightfully queer oddity.
The dark-haired Leo (Damien Bonnard) is a hobo writer-director without a fixed abode, who during his travels happens upon the fair-haired shepherdess Marie (India Hair), with whom he has a child. Her father, the ogre-like Jean-Louis (Raphael Thiry), is a grouchy, waste-no-words farmer who allows Leo to share Marie’s bed, no questions asked. But when she flees with her two preteen boys, apparently because of a postnatal depression, he expects Leo to take care of their child, which Marie has left behind.
This setup could have resulted in a straightforward pastoral drama about fatherhood but this being a Guiraudie film, things veer off the expected course very quickly. In fact, even before running into Marie and Jean-Louis, Leo tries to talk a young man, Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), into auditioning for him, and there might be an interest in the pretty boy that goes beyond potentially casting him. (The cocky Yoan’s short reply: “No”.) The young man lives with and looks after a cantankerous old man, Marcel (Christian Bouillette), who keeps obsessing over that “little faggot” and his (anal) sex life in a way that suggests he himself hasn’t had intercourse for decades. Or are they secretly getting it on together?
In Guiraudie’s screenplay, the power of suggestion and (possible) ellipses are key ingredients in getting audiences to think about the subterranean links between the characters and their relationships. Yoan and Marcel’s complex and ambiguous rapport, for example, occasionally functions as a negative image of what’s going down at Jean-Louis’ farm further down the road, while at other times it suddenly parallels it, like when Jean-Louis suddenly confesses he has the hots for Leo — who, in one of the film’s belly-laugh moments, is initially freaked out by the prospect of having sex with the grandfather of his son.
What ties the men’s stories together more than anything, however, is the fact they are all fathers (or father figures), doing what they can to look after their charges while never denying the fact they are sexual beings. The case could be made that both Yoan and Marcel play the father-figure role in their relationship, as Yoan’s practically Marcel’s caretaker, which suggests how irrelevant heteronormative family roles seem to be for the director; it is all about what works for the characters. “You never told him to leave,” says Leo to the foul-mouthed Marcel when the latter explains that that “little faggot Yoan” just showed up one day. “So you must like the company”.
This fluid take on sexuality, a Guiraudie hallmark, and fatherhood should prove a provocative notion in France, a country still coming to terms with same-sex marriage and adoption. That said, and like in Stranger by the Lake, Vertical’s no-holds-barred approach to sex — no penetration but no shyness about close-ups of genitalia either, filmed with stand-ins — functions as a way of owning the characters’ approach to their respective sexualities but will simultaneously be a major turnoff for more conservative arthouse viewers who might benefit from being exposed to a different take on sex and parenting.
With its frequent shots of winding roads and occasionally searching camera, the film, shot in the southern Lozere, the least populous department of France, starts off in a documentary-like vein, augmented by the use of a mix of relatively unknown actors and amateurs, all excellent. But Staying Vertical slowly morphs into something closer to a dark — and darkly funny — myth or fairytale, though this transformation isn’t entirely smooth. Leo’s visit to a very alternative healer (Laure Calamy) comes as something of a shock, for example, even though he’s crossed a misty river to get to her isolated abode. An almost Biblical vision of Leo being robbed of all his belongings by a swarming group of homeless people in a big city (shot in Brest) also feels like something out of a different movie, at least until it becomes clear it is absolutely necessary for the explosive scene that follows that Leo is indeed stark naked and without any worldly possessions or guard.
Guiraudie’s obsession with wolves makes more sense, as it doesn’t only give the film its stunning final sequence but also unexpectedly casts all these male outcasts as the lambs in this scenario, being preyed upon by the police, social services and society at large to conform to their idea of what’s normal. Indeed, towards the end (spoilers ahead), Leo’s baby is taken away from him because he doesn’t have a home or any income — his failure to bang out a new screenplay is a running gag with a priceless payoff — and the nameless kid ends up with the mother (who abandoned him) because that’s what society assumes is best for him. The irony is, of course, that despite having a single father without a steady job or home, the baby was doing just fine.
Production company: Les films du Worso
Cast: Damien Bonnard, India Hair, Raphael Thiery, Christian Bouillette, Basile Meilleurat, Laure Calamy, Sebastien Novac
Writer-Director: Alain Guiraudie
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon
Director of photography: Claire Mathon
Production designer: Toma Baqueni
Costume designers: Sabrina Violet, Francois Labarthe, Adelaide Le Gras
Editor: Jean-Christophe Hym
Casting: Stephane Batut
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 100 minutes
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