Film Review: Staying Vertical

Cinema provocateur Alain Guiraudie returns to the French countryside for a well-observed though unsettling drama brimming with lust, danger and (to put it mildly) offbeat sexual tension.
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Daring French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie, writer-director of the seductive 2013 Cannes Festival favorite Stranger by the Lake, makes films that immerse the viewer in their characters’ sensual experiences. Nursing a fondness for nature, stillness and wide-open spaces, Guiraudie brings a voyeuristic pleasure to observing each character’s environment and their movements within it. Via beautifully layered sound and highly subjective camera angles, he rations a substantial amount of screen time to what characters see and hear and touch, and how they do so, whether it’s by peering through a pair of binoculars, or catching wind of a voice shouting from the near distance. He defines details that lend weight and dimension to the world onscreen, so that, in Stranger by the Lake, a quite effective thriller, each crackling footstep on a blade of grass may build suspense, and a lengthy take of a young man being forcibly submerged in a lake, held down until he drowns, feels perfectly, horrifyingly, unbearably long.

In Guiraudie’s latest, a queer-themed drama equally attuned to the rhythms and horrors of its well-observed countryside setting, the camera lingers powerfully in one moment on a sheep farmer’s thick, work-worn hand laid with tender insistence on a younger man’s bare thigh. The weight of the gesture registers as fully as the weight of that meaty hand gripping flesh. In an instant, tenderness could turn to violence, or perhaps to something even more unexpected. Such charged suspense animates much of the story, from the moment we meet filmmaker Léo (Damien Bonnard), who has interrupted his drive through the rural hills of Southern France to chat up a striking young man he spots walking alongside the road. Captivated by the young man’s saturnine good looks, Léo draws close, surely too close to be interested only in the professional audition he offers his clearly disinterested quarry.

Thwarted, Léo continues on his way, hiking across the highlands where soon he encounters Marie (India Hair), a lovely shepherdess tending her flock. Her dutiful sheepdog has the good sense to bark like mad when this interloper enters their midst claiming innocence but certain to bring some harm to the flock—which, in a familial sense, includes not just Marie’s farmer dad, Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry), but also her two young sons. Seeming mildly intrigued by Léo’s stated quest to find and photograph the rarely spotted wild wolves that roam these hills, Marie accepts him into her home, and soon her bed, unaware of his parallel pursuit of that boy by the side of the road.

Like Guiraudie, who methodically repeats shots and sequences for dramatic effect, Léo is not above using dogged repetition as a means to an end. In Léo’s case, the end he’s after is the young man, named Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), a drifter who, like Léo himself, turned up one day on someone’s doorstep in this tiny village and never left. Yoan and his host, a cantankerous old widower named Marcel (Christian Bouillette), might or might not share a household arrangement somewhat similar to Léo and Marie’s, but that question only adds urgency to Léo’s determination to free Yoan from Marcel’s clutches and…grant the boy an audition? It would be unfair to reveal more about where Léo’s pursuits take him. Suffice it to say, not every viewer will predict the various couplings and un-couplings that progress from Guiraudie’s pregnant setup, but almost no viewer will forget the shocking climax, a graphic sex scene that will be thoroughly discomforting to some, but at least, thankfully, does not include sheep.

Working with the same cinematographer, editor and sound mixers who contributed such masterful work to Stranger by the Lake, Guiraudie deftly foregrounds the tension between tenderness and violence that made that film so exciting. He also again does not shy away from depicting nudity and sexuality, and not just that of his younger cast members. Clearly, he values lust as a primary motivating factor in life and in this story. Fear of loneliness and a thirst for death also act as strong motivations here, providing some depth especially to Bouillette’s outstanding, fire-breathing performance as Marcel, a cranky eccentric who knows a wolf when he sees one. Otherwise, the rambling narrative, not very sympathetic characters and chilly performances dampen the film’s overall emotional impact. Guiraudie does manage an ending that, despite its awkwardness in clarifying the metaphor of the title, delivers a hard-earned jolt of meaning and, most shocking of all, optimism.

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