5.8

Staying Vertical

2016 Cannes Film Festival Review

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<i>Staying Vertical</i>

With Staying Vertical, writer-director Alain Guiraudie tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to find a new way into subject matter that entices many a filmmaker: the agony of an artist suffering from a creative block. The temptation is understandable—they know whereof they speak—but so are the potential downsides. (On a scale of the world’s major problems, artistic self-doubt ranks fairly low.) So what keeps Staying Vertical potentially appealing is that Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake) brashly decides to take the clichés for a ride, setting us up to assume we’re about to see a sincere exploration of familiar themes, only to get kinkier and more surreal as he goes along. And yet, the story’s fundamental triteness ends up trumping the odd digressions and nervy gambits. In its own way, Staying Vertical is as blocked as its protagonist.

That would be Leo (Damien Bonnard), a filmmaker who keeps promising the money men that he’s almost done with a script he hasn’t even started. While touring the French countryside in search of inspiration, he meets Marie (India Hair), a shepherd trying to keep ravenous wolves from devouring her flock. (Be warned: There’s a metaphor there.) The reasons aren’t clear, but these two mismatched souls are quickly drawn to one another, falling into a sexual relationship that only further delays Leo’s work on his screenplay. Soon after, the couple have a child.

It’s a sign of Guiraudie’s willingness to disorient viewers that he keeps us off-balance from the start. Leo and Marie’s impulsive relationship has only barely registered with the audience when Staying Vertical smash-cuts shockingly to a live child birth, the camera focusing close on the newborn’s head emerging from his mother’s womb. Suddenly, the characters’ lives are profoundly changed, but Guiraudie doesn’t stop there, hinting at Marie’s unhappiness briefly before she takes her other children and abandons Leo and the baby.

After this string of abrupt surprises, Staying Vertical appears to settle into a conventional storyline, as we watch Leo adjust to life as a single father, helped by Marie’s cantankerous dad (Raphaël Thiéry) who has remained on the farm she fled. Perhaps learning to care for another living being will help Leo shake his writer’s block and, maybe just maybe, allow him to become a better person in the process?

Thankfully, Guiraudie isn’t interested in anything so formulaic. Instead, he stirs the pot, letting his assortment of unusual side characters—including an elderly neighbor (Christian Bouillette) and his restless young ward (Basile Meilleurat)—take on new roles in this shape-shifting drama. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal much more of the plot, but let’s just say that unexpected sexual pairings and bizarre encounters start to dominate, leading us to wonder if what we’re seeing is either emanating from Leo’s warped subconscious or if it’s Guiraudie working in a purely symbolic mode, constructing his main character’s strange odyssey so as to represent the disillusionment and uncertainty that plague an artist who has lost his muse.

There are rewards to Guiraudie’s method. Seguing from the deceptively pedestrian to the genuinely strange, Staying Vertical means to mock artists’ meager concerns by turning Leo’s creative stagnation into a farce. (At one point, the film inexplicably morphs into a cheeky chase picture, Leo being pursued by his agent who’s impatient for the finished script.) The more Leo gets engulfed by fatherhood and disconnected from his screenplay, the wilder Staying Vertical becomes, as if the film’s fluid logic is mirroring our protagonist’s altered worldview. One character suddenly starts to make advances on Leo, while he ends up taking another to bed, the results proving to be startlingly morbid. And because Guiraudie plays every scene realistically, we’re never quite sure how to respond, which only makes the whole film more enticing.

But Guiraudie’s daring—which includes some explicit sexual scenes—can only take Staying Vertical so far. No matter the flights of fancy the writer-director engages in, he’s still at the mercy of a story about a man, his writer’s block and the baby who comes into his life. And those elements prove too simplistic for him to entirely shake off—even when the movie reaches toward the mythic or the elemental, it’s weighed down by clichés. If anything, the audacity only serves to remind us of what the film is trying to overcome.

To be sure, Bonnard proves to be a pleasing enigma. We never learn what Leo’s working on, or even if he’s an accomplished filmmaker, and the actor keeps those riddles (and others) a mystery. Even his interactions with his infant son are played close to the vest—Leo isn’t just blocked as an artist but also as a person, and Bonnard refuses to make that transformation come easy. As for the supporting cast, they leave an impression even when their characters are underwritten, especially Hair as a depressed young woman who seems to stumble from one misery to another. But like her costars, she’s merely a pawn under the control of a filmmaker whose stylistic exercise never transcends its inherent limitations. Guiraudie wants to have a little sport with the irritation that comes with a creative block—but he can’t quite make art out of it.

Director: Alain Guiraudie
Writer: Alain Guiraudie
Starring: Damien Bonnard, India Hair, Raphaël Thiéry, Christian Bouillette, Basile Meilleurat, Laure Calamy
Release Date: Screening in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival



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.