“Staying vertical” refers to how one should position oneself when confronted by a wolf. Alain Guiraudie’s latest film could also refer to how to survive when dealing with the screenwriter turned sheepherder who enters the lives of a woman and several men while raising a newborn. Staying Vertical presents its narrative wrinkles, including detours into magical realism, so matter-of-factly that it moves beyond camp until its ludicrous denouement, which, if not camp, is provocation by a director whose previous forays into the perverse sprung from recognizable patters of human behavior. When Guiraudie studies the intersection of sex and violence, he’s on firmer ground than when he’s spooking the audience with sex and violence.
The film begins with a Renaut coursing through the roads outside Lozère in southwestern France, driven by Léo (Damien Bonnard). He pulls up beside a young man to whom he directs questions that sound like come-ons (““Have you ever thought about a movie career?”). Léo’s sexuality is one of Staying Vertical‘s abiding mysteries. Not long afterward, he meets a shepherdess Marie (India Hair) watching her flock; she’s groping him on a hilltop within minutes, perhaps turned on by Léo admitting, “I love the prairie –I’m into wolves,” as who wouldn’t be? Anticipating lupine passions – that’s what Guiraudie does best. Soon they’re shacking up in the countryside with Marie’s two older boys and her dad Jean-Louis (Raphael Thiéry), who has the mien of a troll with several dozen Hansel and Gretels in his belly. The dude whom Léo had questioned is Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), a roommate of Marcel (Christian Bouillette) and perhaps more, especially the way Marcel lurches from anger to despair after Yoan departs for Australia; his prevalent use of “faggot” gives one pause, though. When Marie and Léo have their own baby, their mutual sexual interest diminishes, as does Marie’s interest in her children generally; noting their mother’s indifference to their half brother’s wailing in another room, one of Marie’s sons wonders if she ignored their cries as babies too. Meanwhile Léo, unable to finish his script despite calls from the irritated producer, fends off advances from Marcel, finding solace with a woodland spirit and amateur analyst (Laure Calamy) who dwells upriver, accessible only by canoe; when a lattice of branches covers his chest, it’s as if he’s at an examination table hooked put to monitors.
Droll and repellent, Staying Vertical uses demystification strategies that the squeamish will dismiss as shock tactics. Extreme close-ups of scrotums and vulvas and crowning babies – sex and birth don’t awe Guiraudie. No one looks like Zac Efron: Yoan is complimented for being “young and cute” despite being neither. In 2009 Guiraudie released The King of Escape, about a homosexual man in what Dante would call the middle of his journey whose love for a girl many years his junior leads him into group sex. 2014’s Stranger by the Lake, which put him on the international map, examines the politics (and dangers) of gay cruising. The coolness with which Guiraudie situates characters in rural landscapes and the low EKG reading given by his actors amount to an almost cosmic po-facedness. That scene with Léo and the doctor has the inevitability of the found weirdness in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, and elsewhere he includes a bit of haunting offhand poetry that stuck with me: Léo shot from the head up against the gloaming as somewhere his baby cries.
To accept what happens to the baby and another member of Léo’s circle in the film’s last act requires a suspension of disbelief that may play better when you’ve lived with the film days or weeks later in tranquility, but it’s as bold as as anything in Stranger by the Lake. No one makes films like Guiraudie, and no one knows how.
Staying Vertical is available for streaming.