In Staying Vertical, as in nearly all of French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie’s tonically unorthodox work, the emphasis is on the abundant possibility of pairings and practices when people get horizontal.
Filled with quite literal chubby-chasing, Guiraudie’s sexually anarchic romp The King of Escape (2009), for example, centers on a middle-aged gay man who falls in love and runs off with a 16-year-old girl, only to conclude with an all-male gerontophilic foursome. While the XXX action in the taut cruising-ground thriller Stranger by the Lake, the first of Guiraudie’s movies to receive stateside release, may be exclusively man-on-man, the meat-rack habitués in that 2013 film are refreshingly varied in age and BMI. Often the fluidity of desire matches the protean nature of his narratives, a quality that’s especially apparent in Staying Vertical — a film that braids in, sometimes too desultorily, fairy tale–like elements and surreal logic.
Like its predecessors, Staying Vertical is shot (primarily) in rural Southern France. Yet Guiraudie’s latest also atypically includes detours to a city: Brest, the port town to which itinerant Léo (Damien Bonnard), a screenwriter who’s months past a deadline, returns from time to time. As the film opens, Léo, whose creative-class profession distinguishes him from Guiraudie’s usual farm-laborer or blue-collar protagonists, is motoring through the winding byways of Lozère in a run-down Renault. He approaches a curly-haired young guy he sees on the side of the road: “Have you ever thought about a movie career?” It’s a dopey come-on, one made even more artless by Léo’s awkward posture, and coolly rebuffed by Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), who lives, as we later learn, with the ancient Marcel (Christian Bouillette) as the geezer’s vaguely defined caretaker and likely catamite.
In Guiraudie’s erotically elastic scenarios, though, rejection doesn’t sting for long. Hiking through the hills, with the brutal pastoral beauty of the region accentuated by the widescreen compositions, Léo spots Marie (India Hair), a flinty shepherdess who lectures him on the constant dangers posed by wolves, the totem animal of Staying Vertical. All the lupine talk serves as turn-on: In an abrupt and funny extreme close-up, Marie’s hand is soon on Léo’s dungareed crotch. Just as quickly and unceremoniously, he becomes one of the ménage, settling in to the farmhouse that Marie shares with her two towheaded little boys and her ogreish father, Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry), who suggests the unfortunate son of John C. Reilly and André the Giant.
The couple’s bedroom scenes often begin with a screen-filling shot of Marie’s vulva, a clear nod to Courbet’s notorious painting The Origin of the World. Those adoringly, classically framed genitals, however, soon resemble a gruesome crime scene: Footage of a newborn being pushed out of its mother’s vagina spares no blood, excreta or goo. This blast of trying body horror is immediately followed by that once-viscous creature now as a cute, onesie-clad baby boy, dandled by Léo, who’ll shortly be the unnamed infant’s sole caretaker after Marie departs with her two older kids.
For a while, there’s a kind of order to Léo’s increasingly shambolic existence, signaled by the recurrence of through-the-windshield shots as the ungainly scriptwriter drives back and forth, his kid usually in tow, from the home he now uneasily occupies with Jean-Louis to the fractious residence of Yoan and Marcel to a micro-hotel room in Brest — where, in one of several dreamlike scenes, he’s mobbed and denuded by a horde of homeless men. Léo’s also a king of escape, but one who can never fully assume the throne. In his most outré odyssey, he slowly paddles down a stream, his baby an incongruous bundle on the floor of a canoe, for an appointment with a yurt-dwelling shaman, Dr. Mirande (Laure Calamy), a healer with a terse bedside manner.
That fluvial episode exemplifies the pleasures of Guiraudie’s unpredictable scenarios; the setting, thick with vegetation, recalls both the promise and the menace that imbued the arcadian grove where sex is sought in Stranger by the Lake. As always with Guiraudie’s films, Staying Vertical shrewdly (and often hilariously) captures both the seriousness and the absurdity of sex, particularly when Léo obliges miserable Marcel with a dying wish: The younger man tenderly, but no less resolutely, barebacks the old guy, Léo’s determined thrusting scored to ludicrously loud prog-rock noodling.
But while overwhelmed Léo tries to maintain the position of the movie’s title — standing upright amid so much chaos or remaining erect with his various bedmates — some events are defined not by the exhilaration of libidinal lawlessness but by fatiguing whim. Plug-ugly Jean-Louis’ late-act blunt propositioning of Léo, for instance, comes as no surprise — Guiraudie’s movies are often populated with such age- and beauty-discordant potential pairings — but now seems almost de rigueur for the director. But while I grew restless in Staying Vertical’s final 30 minutes, my fear that Guiraudie was beginning to rely too heavily on the same propriety-pushing situations was quelled by Staying Vertical’s knockout ending — one that imagines a different, almost certainly doomed, communion between two different species.