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Staying Vertical plays October 11 and 12 as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. Strand Releasing will release the movie in February of 2017. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
Staying Vertical is in many ways what many of us were hoping for and expecting after director Alain Guiraudie’s previous film, the excellent Stranger by the Lake (2014), transposing that film’s stylistic precision onto a loose and rambling narrative that recalls the amorphous and inchoate desire patterns of his earlier work rather than the temporal and spatial restriction of his breakout.
Like those early works, it’s essentially a highbrow sex farce—though more muted than overtly comic, Staying Vertical nevertheless focuses on setting up highly charged desire configurations only to quickly about-face, scramble circuits, and spin the bottle once again. In this case, the setup involves a screenwriter (Damien Bonnard) driving through the French countryside, attempting to lure a young man to a presumably seedy “acting audition” and—in a clever temporal ellipses—suddenly impregnating a young farmhand. At first, the film’s impeccably clean approach, muted tones and stoic cuts to empty space, risks neutering the material into a dully conventional and reductive image of French pastoralism as the uncivilized space of free desire. Likewise, repeated close-ups of the sexual act read more as underlined motifs than as real erotic energy, even if they’re charmingly non-confrontation regardless, and a recurring bit involving the screenwriter’s obsession with paying a homeless man ends up at once overplayed and needlessly free-floating.
But in the film’s second half, it subtly torques into a mix of joyous perversion that wonderfully utilizes crime and art movie cliches for their inherent ability to heighten a sensual experience. Along with moments of outright transgression and aided by the acute sense of environmental sound design as erotic element that pushed Stranger by the Lake into similar territories, Guiraudie pushes our screenwriter into to a series of deliciously desire-scrambled reworkings of the nuclear family, his infant child now clutched perpetually in his arms. By the time we’ve reached an act of euthanasia via anal sex in full view of the child, the film has reached not the depths of depravity, but the realm of the quietly spiritual and the oddly joyous.