The meaning of the title of Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical (Rester Vertical) doesn’t become clear until its very final moments: a scene that, in its mixture of the hopeful, the humorous and the deeply discomforting, pretty much encapsulates the film’s bizarre and slippery tonal shifts.
One of the most controversial entries into The Cannes Festival Competition thus far, Guiraudie’s movie is a fascinating enigma: by turns beautiful and grotesque, funny and scary, tender and surreal, it’s a haunting trip into the psyche of its protagonist that keeps the viewer constantly off-balance but continually engaged and intrigued.
Guiraudie has been making shorts and features since the early ’90s, but it wasn’t until the success of Stranger by the Lake, his cruising thriller which brought gay porn aesthetics to the arthouse, that he became more widely known. Competing in “Un Certain Regard” in 2013, Stranger scooped both the Best Direction and Queer Palm prizes and went on to achieve international acclaim.
Though a very different beast, Staying Vertical shares some aspects with its predecessor: notably, an excellent attention to ambience and rhythm (D.P. Claire Mathon and editor Jean-Christophe Hym once again distinguish themselves here with terrific work) and a vein of transgressive sexuality that, in the film’s single most shocking sequence, links Eros and Thanatos even more boldly than Stranger by the Lake did.
The film’s protagonist is Leo (Damien Bonnard), a screenwriter who’s procrastinating over the development of his latest work, and fending off calls from his agent. Venturing into the South of France for inspiration, he meets Marie (India Hair), a shepherdess who lives with her farmer father Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry) and her two sons. Nine months (and one very memorable cut) later, and Marie and Leo have had a child of their own, but Marie is soon tired of both the baby’s incessant crying and of Leo’s attitude, and departs, leaving him and Jean-Louis to raise the child alone.
At this point it looks like Staying Vertical is going to morph into “Two Men and a Baby”, and in a sense it does, offering a queer take on parenthood that boldly subverts a whole lot of gender stereotypes. But, Guiraudie has some much (much) stranger surprises up his sleeve. Not the least of these involves Leo’s interactions with a young guy, Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), and Marcel (Christian Bouilette), the old man he takes care of: an ailing geezer who passes his time listening to Pink Floyd at full volume and letting rip with abusive comments of a racist and homophobic nature. Meanwhile, Leo seeks solace deeper in the country with a doctor (Laure Calamy) who practices plant spirit medicine, and where – in one particularly hilarious sequence – his agent tracks him down.
That scene, in particular, flags up Staying Vertical‘s superficial affinities with Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) as both films are explorations of a screenwriter’s frustrated creative process. Yet, Guiraudie’s movie is much less concerned with self-reflexive game-playing than Jonze’s and is, I think, all the richer and stranger for that.
Staying Vertical is going to annoy and anger a lot of people, but open-minded audiences willing to follow the weird twists and turns of Guiraudie’s latest will find much to haunt and reward them here.