5.5

Bird People

(2014 Beirut International Film Festival review)

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<i>Bird People</i>

They don’t know each other, they come from different countries, but for a few days their dilemmas will be awfully similar. How they go about navigating out of their troubles, however, will also be quite different.

Bird People is the latest from director and co-writer Pascale Ferran, whose previous film was the 2006 adaptation Lady Chatterley. Her new movie is a diptych, the first half devoted to one character, the second half turning its attention to another, both of whom are spending time at a hotel near Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. This understated, thoughtful drama actually boasts a rather audacious twist, although one wishes it had been executed a little more satisfyingly. Despite its wistful, occasionally elegant spirit, Bird People ends up feeling a little too fragile, its ideas too delicate to stand up to close scrutiny. As a movie, it’s a gentle breeze that never quite knocks us over.

At first, Bird People directs our attention to Gary (Josh Charles), an executive from a Bay Area tech company who’s just arrived in Paris to close a deal. The meeting goes well, but when Gary returns to his hotel, he begins inexplicably to feel panicked, unable to sleep that night. Short of breath, desperate for a cigarette, the man impulsively makes a decision: he’s not going to catch his flight to his next business trip. Instead, he’s walking away from the company. In fact, he’s walking away from everything, including his children and wife (Radha Mitchell).

Gary isn’t the only person longing for escape. A young maid at the hotel, Audrey Camuzet (Anaïs Demoustier), feels at a crossroads, unsure what she wants to do with her life. Inquisitive and meek, Audrey observes all around her, almost like the unseen angels monitoring human activity in Wings of Desire. Her eventual strategy to switch up her reality turns out to be far more radical than Gary’s, which would seem nearly impossible considering that he essentially decides to ditch everything and everyone he’s known.

Audrey’s plan can’t be described in detail since it contains Bird People’s major spoiler. But let it be said that once the spoiler is revealed, it’s beguiling, underlining how different Audrey is from those around her. But while her emotional (and physical) transformation is executed with impressive technical skill, Ferran doesn’t build on its initial delight. Unfortunately, the twist turns out to be a one-note gimmick that’s a little too precious, failing to prove as magical or poetic as it clearly intends.

Demoustier’s section isn’t the only half with nagging issues, though. Played with winning ambiguity by Charles, Gary never quite articulates why he’s tossing away his life. (Conversations with his boss and his wife are inconclusive. He knows he has to make a personal change, but his newfound perspective seems a mystery to those who know him.) And for a while, Bird People honors that mystery: the movie declines to have much of an opinion on Gary’s rash decision, merely witnessing the consequences of his choice as they play out practically in real time.

Such an approach results in something of an existential mood piece, although Bird People lacks the sharpness or insight to dig too deeply into Gary’s headspace. Charles portrays the man’s malaise, but there’s not much of an inner life to the character, no hint of darker or more intriguing motives under the surface. And his section of the film is badly hampered by an overlong Skype confrontation between Gary and his wife as the couple grows progressively more combative and vindictive. Neither cathartic nor illuminating, the sequence grounds Bird People in the banality of domestic misery.

As Bird People comes to a close, our two unlikely co-protagonists finally have a meaningful exchange, neither of them realizing their shared personal crisis. Both actors are likable and sympathetic, but in their own ways they’re hemmed in by a script that’s a touch too clever and intellectual to get to the heart of our disconnected age. A movie about people trying to find themselves, Bird People never quite finds its voice.

Director: Pascale Ferran
Writers: Pascale Ferran, Guillaume Bréaud
Starring: Josh Charles, Anaïs Demoustier, Roschdy Zem, Radha Mitchell
Release Date: Sept. 12, 2014

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.