BACK WHERE YOU STARTED
Festival favourite Alain Guiraudie stumbles and falls with STAYING VERTICAL, a shaggy-dog story that goes nowhere slow
Alain Guiraudie rose from being an acquired taste known mostly to the festival circuit to one of the current critical favourites of French cinema through a series of curiously rural and progressively more ambitious productions, breaking through to a wider public on the back of his sixth feature, 2013's Stranger by the Lake. This wry, deadpan mix of murder mystery and sex comedy crystallised his singularly, leisurely rambling approach to narrative, putting the natural landscapes of rural France to good use in tales of people that find themselves bewildered by their own desires.
Kudos to Guiraudie for not wanting to parlay that international succés d’estime into a more mainstream follow-up. But even if you factor in that desire to escape expectations and keep true to his muse, Staying Vertical seems to be taking the director backwards instead of forwards, as if he’d retreated into some sort of self-centered cocoon that merely rehashes his past work into a sort of public admission of aimlessness. It’s the sort of shaggy-dog story we expect from a certain kind of French director, taking way too long to follow its hero get nowhere slow — which may seem too much like a crude, quick generalisation but, instead, comes from watching too many middling French auteur films that seem to hide their banality behind arty presentation or ambition. (I’m with you, Richard Brody.) There’s nothing new going on in Guiraudie’s film, and, bar the odd moment, there really isn’t a formal or creative saving grace that makes it more tolerable.
Staying Vertical follows the hapless Léo (Damien Bonnard), a screenwriter out in the country looking for inspiration that gets sidetracked by a casual tryst with a bored shepherdess (India Hair) with whom he ends up moving in and sires a child. Guiraudie’s film follows Léo as his life spirals out of control and brings him pretty much to the cusp of despondency, without ever truly explaining (to the audience or to the character himself) why it is that he allows the world to buffet him so. It’s almost like he’s doing penance for simply being who he is, for being an urbanite in the country, in which case Staying Vertical plays like a sort of pagan yet pointless version of the Stations of the Cross, full of bi-sexual temptations and odd friendships to ultimately end up where it started.
In its shambling country paths of magic and transformation, Staying Vertical is almost a sister movie to João Pedro Rodrigues’ far superior and far more structured The Ornithologist. The comparison may be unfair to Guiraudie (though Staying Vertical is the “elder” film by a couple of months only, the Portuguese director had been working on The Ornithologist on and off for a number of years), but there’s a sense that while Rodrigues’ film knew where it was going and what it wanted to say, the Frenchman seems to be playing out on screen the depth and extent of his uncertainty as to what is this film he is making, and that it won’t really matter as long as you face things head on. If that was indeed the point he wanted to make, let’s just say he could have made it in a much less roundabout and less lugubrious way; and while the late Chantal Akerman once admitted that she wanted her audience to feel every single moment of time elapsed in her films, there was a reason behind that.
There seems to be no such reason or rhyme behind Staying Vertical — it’s one of those films that suggests either a director lionised beyond his actual talent (unlikely given what came before) or that one big ill-advised step that so many talented artists take at exactly the wrong time (my money is on this one). Either way, the benefit of the doubt has been seriously reduced for Alain Guiraudie.