Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 12, 2016 6:32 pm 
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Country life

Gay-oriented French director Alain Guiraudie, whose Stranger by the Lake/L'inconnu du lac in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2013 won him a lot of prizes, made it for the first time into Cannes Competition with this year's Staying Vertical/Rester vertical. Having seen only his last two features (he's made eight) I can hardly generalize, but the New York Film Festival Q&A brought out that Guiraudie often makes a new film that contrasts with the last. Staying Vertical's changes of location and wild unpredictability are indeed in sharp contrast with Stranger by the Lake's tight police procedural structure and strict limitations of time and place. The last film could be seen as a grimly realistic critique of cold gay sex. The new film is notable for its comically free-flowing sexuality. It also has an element of the surreal and of fable, and a mythological beast, the wolf, which may have its parallels in the male cast members.

Vertical's narrative follows its strapping main character Leo (Damien Bonnard), a screenwriter wandering homeless around southern France in his Renault. He keeps asking his producer (Sébastien Novac) to wire him 3,000-euro advances, but he hasn't written a line. He meets a feisty young shepherdess called Marie (India Hair) and they have tender (and realistic) sex and a baby is born (fast forward, obviously, and also realistic). Guiraudie handles the impulsive and natural sex very casually. Marie has post-partum depression and runs off to town with her two young sons, leaving Leo with the baby. Leo also has to contend with Marie's ogreish father Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry), who seems to be dangerous, and also predatory. And from the start he has kept coming back to an old man by the roadside, Marcel (Christian Bouillette), for whom age has never lessened his pleasure in Pink Floyd played at top volume, who slings homophobic abuse upon the pretty young man who lives with him, Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), whom Leo propositions, but who has no use for Leo. Leo goes repeatedly for some kind of plant therapy in a swamp, just as he keeps going back to Marcel and looking for Yoan. He takes care of the baby, but this becomes increasingly shaky as he runs out of money and is attacked by homeless people and left naked. He is fascinated by wolves, who are a real menace in France these days. At one point Jean-Louis uses the baby as a bait for them.

As D'Angelo writes in his Cannes report for AVClub, Guiraudie makes all this outrageous stuff work through rhythmical repetition, and there is a tonic quality about the flow of freedom and responsibility. This film neatly skates the line between what could make you cry and what could make you laugh, though in the Q&A the director said he'd have liked to have achieved that to a greater extent and will strive to in future. One of the jokes is how Guiraudie reuses existing characters for new functions instead of introducing new ones. It's a process film and the process is Leo's gradual decline, but at the end in a stunning final scene it seems Leo has been transformed and elevated into a shepherd and saintly wolf whisperer. But apart from anything that happens the pleasure of the film is its continual sense of unpredictability, hovering between tragic and comic, and its country earthiness, the directness of its passions. Guiraudie grew up in a farming family, according to French Wikepedia, and in the Department of Aveyron where much of this film takes place. One might think of Bruno Dumont for the brutal bluntness of the sex, but this is sweeter. Not for everyone, but a great palate-cleanser for the cinephile who's been watching more conventional festival entries like Neruda and Graduation.

Staying Vertical/Rester vertical, 100 mins, debuted at Cannes May 2016 in Competition. Ten other festivals including London and New York in October. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival. US theatrical release by Strand coming in LA on 20 Jan. 2017 at Laemmle's Royal Theatre and in NYC 27 Jan. 2017 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center. Release on DVD in the US (Strand) 20 May 2017.
Alain Guiraudie @ NYFF (CK photo)
Q&A 12 Oct. 2016.

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