Structured like a dream, or a nightmare, Staying Vertical (Rester Vertical in the original French) is populated with character types – the writer, the young man, the grandfather, the doctor, the farmer, the farmer’s daughter. And it has wolves in it too, which feature almost as a threat or an element from a fairytale until they make an actual appearance right at the end.
Imagine Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon brought up to date. Damien Bonnard is the Lyndon-esque Léo, a young man on the make, a rake, a bullshitter, a fantasist, who we first encounter hitting on a handsome young man. “Do you want to be in the movies?” asks Léo, using the oldest come-on in the book. Yoan (Basile Meilleurat) tells him where to get off, and for good measure the young man’s grandfather (Christian Bouillette) also weighs in with a “back off, faggot” or words to that effect.
Léo is, in fact, an actual screenwriter, but he’ll spend most of the film failing to write a word until he is eventually chased down by the producer to whom he’s promised a screenplay. In the interim he meets a shepherdess on a hillside, immediately seduces her, then moves in with her and her hungry-eyed father and has a child with her, all the while still trying to put the make on Yoan.
Shepherdess Marie is not the last of Léo’s conquests and having a child with her is not the happy end for him. In fact his life is about to take a massive turn for the worse, on account of his not having written a word for the producer, who eventually arrives like an avenging angel to put a serious skid under him.
Léo’s libido provides the narrative force in this incident-rich but relatively plotless drama inside which characters behave like chess pieces. Léo will fuck just about anything, and quite how far this “anything” reaches I’ll not disclose because one of the joys of this opaque romp is the situations that Léo gets into thanks to his dick.
I know I’m not making sense. But this film barely does. On a couple of occasions Léo takes his troubled psyche to see the doctor (Laure Calamy). To get there he has to paddle a boat up a misty river out of a dream by psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. Once there she covers him in sensors and gives him the talking cure. No idea what that’s about, though it’s even dreamier (more mythical?) than the rest of it.
This is the first film by writer/director Alain Guiraudie since 2013’s superb thriller, Stranger by the Lake, a film about gay men cruising their way towards an early death at a nudist beach. Staying Vertical is more of a comedy (and there a few good hollow laughs to be had from it) but Guiraudie composes it in much the same way as he did with Stranger by the Lake – long static shots that seem to be freighted with meaning, lots of ambient sound, little if any music on the soundtrack, impassive actors, a join-the-dots narrative, though here it feels like a few of the dots have gone missing in action.
The other thing it has in common is a matter of factness and in-your-face-ness about sex. Cock and cunt proliferate. At any point any person might try and make out with any other person, male or female. Sex as a marker of some kind of identity – gay, straight, whatever – is not what Guiraudie is interested in. He’s more elemental than that. Sex is one of the ways that humans make contact with each other. Staying Vertical is full of people who are trying and usually failing to have meaningful contact with each other. For many of them sex is as close as they get, and even that turns out more often than not to be inadequate or ugly, or deadly.
A comedy, I think. I preferred the Guiraudie of Stranger by the Lake, a unique film that functioned on the level of narrative and allegory. Staying Vertical works best, probably, at the allegorical and mythical level. Which is another way of saying I have absolutely no idea what the hell was going on.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021