Staying Vertical: Freedom’s Just Another Word for What?

Staying Vertical

Staying Vertical
Directed by Alain Guiraudie
Opens January 20

French writer-director Alain Guiraudie deservedly won a wider international audience in 2013 and ’14 as the cruising-spot thriller Stranger by the Lake, a brilliant plein-air exploration of the dark side of desire, made the festival rounds and rippled on through some of the more adventurous commercial art houses. With his follow-up, Staying Vertical, Guiraudie seems less preoccupied with growing his audience than with continuing to confound its expectations. Vertical, a sort of kissing cousin to his earthily anarchic 2009 comedy King of Escape, holds over some of the extreme eroticism of Stranger (i.e., close-ups of various genitalia as it’s fondled) while beating a retreat from the earlier film’s strict formalism—the protagonist of the new movie, which feels almost improvised, is a screenwriter who hardly has the willpower to tap out a sentence.

Thematically speaking, Vertical, a stealth fantasy that has largely realistic-looking settings but characters who act unaccountably, concerns the contradictory human longing for both freedom and responsibility, the simultaneous need for nothing tying you down but also for ties that bind. At the beginning of the film, city dweller and apparent bachelor Léo (Damien Bonnard) suddenly decides to pull over along a narrow road in the verdant South of France. He steps out of his car to make an unsuccessful pass at Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), but soon winds up bedding down with local single-mother shepherdess Marie (India Hair). After what seems like no time, she’s delivering his baby—an abrupt cut takes us from a serene post-coital moment between Marie and Léo to a graphic birth-canal-level shot of a baby being born. The domestic idyll doesn’t last for long, though: Marie loses patience with the noncommittal Léo—who, for whatever reason, keeps shuttling back and forth between city and country—packing up with her two boys and leaving him with sole custody of the newborn.

Practiced at avoiding obligations, Léo would appear to be the antithesis of a model parent. The writer, who’s agreed to turn in a script that’s far overdue, hardly even makes a good-faith effort at starting it; meanwhile, he promises his agent it’s almost done and asks him to wire more money. Léo is also a man too often sidetracked by a directionless lust—he fucks Yoan’s foul-mouthed elderly guardian, Marcel (Christian Bouillette), in the movie’s single most shocking scene (the full circumstances of which only make the one-off coupling all the more mind-boggling). But Léo clearly loves the child, and grows to relish, if not excel at, his role as protector. During a couple of Vertical’s most plain-to-see departures from reality, Léo lays his son on the bottom of a canoe and rows to the sylvan hut of a New Age healer. She patiently quiets the baby before turning her attention to Léo, wiring his body with some sort of plant electrodes as he takes the opportunity to talk about the joys and anxieties of single fatherhood. In this world, as in ours, such moments of unadulterated calm and gratitude are all too fleeting—for the most part, all we can do is brave the daily commotion of debts owed and desires scarcely fulfilled.