At first focused on quotidian details, Bird People takes a surreal turn.
Airports are all about promise. Springboards to the great elsewhere, they are also, for passengers en route, a comfortingly null zone wherein the normal rules of adult life are suspended. The promise of airports can be intoxicating. But the reality is more often deadening, not transportive.
In Bird People, Pascale Ferran’s ode to the in-between, Charles de Gaulle airport takes on both qualities. It's at once an escape and a trap for the unwary, and also where we meet Gary (Josh Charles), a Silicon Valley engineer who’s supposed to be zipping into Paris for a meeting and then taking off the next day for the Dubai. Hollow-eyed and exhausted, he checks into the Hilton perched next to one of the runways.
Somewhere between cutting off a chatty cab driver and zoning out during his meeting, it becomes obvious that something beyond the long trip is eating at Josh. We never figure out what his job is, but that doesn’t matter. He hates it. He hates everything about his life. That includes his wife and children back in California. An epic Skype session with his befuddled wife back home (Radha Mitchell) doesn’t elucidate much of anything except that he wants to run away.
At the Hilton, we meet Audrey (Anaïs Demoustier), a young chambermaid who can’t stop watching people. Ferran and Guillaume Bréaud’s screenplay provides just a little more context for her than Gary, but not much. We know that she’s attending university and is something of a loner, her life comprised of working and commuting. In the one scene where we see her at home, the first thing she does is open the floor-to-ceiling windows to watch people in their apartments across the street. At the hotel, she listens in on guest’s conversations and she attends to the smallest details in each room she enters. She looks like a bird pecking food from the ground.
Where Gary’s life reads as riddled with midlife meaninglessness, Audrey’s is an exercise in everyday wonderment. Her outlook is more attuned to that of the film, particularly the fluttering sparrows appearing repeatedly in frame. Like so many other images in Bird People, these suggest simultaneous movement and stasis, aimless wandering and determined yearning. A dialogue-free opening montage contains nothing but people on a commuter train, all captured in their private worlds. Almost every other scene that follows shows either a bird or a passenger winging their way to parts unknown.
At first, it’s hard to tell where Ferran is going with much of this. We initially seem to be watching lives in freefall, like some 21st-century riff on Antonioni. As Gary acts impulsively and self-destructively, we observe Audrey's more emotive behavior; she looks disconnected in a way that seems tailor-made to recharge Gary’s batteries. But instead of setting up circumstances to bring these people together, about halfway into Audrey’s story, Ferran throws viewers a surrealistic curve.
This pivot allows the previously grounded film to leave gravity behind. More than providing an excuse for a glorious use of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, this sequence also explores another kind of freedom, more abstract, more immediate, a freedom that would have been impossible to show in the earlier, more hermetically sealed story.
The turn also makes for an odd switch, one will certainly infuriating for some viewers. At first, very little happens in a highly realistic way, and then, when something does, it bears no resemblance to lived experience. Bird People resembles a fairy tale in that it understands both the allure and the danger of freedom. But it's not a fairy tale, despite its quivering optimism, reframing its cool hymn to generic, circular, and modern spaces. As it creates and never quite allays such tension -- between the still and the dynamic, the lost and the yearning -- this glittering little oddity also finds greatness.