Cast: Damien Bonnard, India Hair, Raphael Thiery, Christian Bouillette, Sebastien Novac
Director: Alain Guiraudie
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Alain Guiraudie's Staying Vertical treats genre as a window into the interior lives of his characters rather than a narrative doorway. It's not quite a domestic drama, though the threat of domesticity is constantly hanging over our central figure, Leo (Damien Bonnard) as he drifts from one place to the next. The film is also not simply a dark satire of sexual frustration, though like Guiraudie's previous two features, Stranger by the Lake and The King of Escape, repressed male sexuality does become a major motif. Truthfully, Staying Vertical resists easy classification because it lulls us into believing that a narrative arc will emerge, foreshadowed by behavioral actions or telegraphed through uses of "magical realism" that never quite occur. The brilliance of Guiraudie's technique here; which is reminiscent of late era Luis Bunuel, is that he never explicitly lets us in on what should be taken seriously as opposed to what should be treated as a droll joke.
In one of the film's more coy touches, Leo is presented as a screenwriter who stays in random motels, drives aimlessly along rural highways, and backpacks across the French countryside. The vision of a restless manchild unable to settle down or figure out what he really wants is nothing new, but Guiraudie complicates things by creating an unsettling tone of anxiety in which Leo constantly makes baffling decisions while treating those around him as little more than accessories to his struggle between conformity and freedom. As his financial situation grows more dire (the supposed screenplay is long overdo and expenses are mounting), Leo finds himself drawn to Marie (India Hair) a woman he meets on a farm. They eventually have a child together, but the specter of a domineering father (Raphael Thiery) along with general unhappiness, causes her to leave Leo and the baby behind in search of her own identity.
The remainder of Staying Vertical charts Leo's journey drifting into oblivion; child in arms, as he attempts to finish his screenplay while also satisfying his self-entitled need for sexual gratification. He continuously stalks an attractive young man whom he glimpses from his car on the roadside, and there are encounters with both Marie's father as well as a sickly older man (Christian Bouillette, in an uproariously vulgar performance) which speaks to the idea of sex as a release (pun intended) from displacement, existential ennui, and even death. As played by Bonnard with stilted posture (hence the film's title), blank gaze, and complete lack of self-awareness, Leo becomes less a model for arrested development and more of a deranged animal as the film lurches towards it's striking climax.
That literal animals appear (in this case a pack of roaming wolves), as Leo takes his infant son out into the middle of a prairie, should play as either a blackly comic vignette or a queasy horror movie set-piece. That Guiraudie is able to capture both the comic absurdity as well as the evocative danger of the sequence is, in many ways, indicative of his grasp on upending tonal expectations throughout. The image of Leo cradling a baby as ravenous beasts slowly circle him represents a poetic symbol for certain genre descriptions (most notably, coming-of-age), but there's nothing neat or tidy about such a payoff. Instead, Staying Vertical emerges as something more emotionally affecting than any kind of narrative synopsis would indicate; reveling in a stew of sex, death, and writer's block to haunting and delightfully bizarre effect.