Coming on the heels of his critically hailed, festival sensation “Stranger by the Lake,” director Alain Guiraudie must have been presented with wealth of offers and opportunities. He must have also been struck by a terrifying case of expectation-induced writer’s block, because that’s pretty much what his follow-up film is about. Though spiked with stone-faced irony, “Staying Vertical” is essentially the essay about the essay about not knowing what to write.
“Staying Vertical” has characters, and they have names and dialogue and all that jazz, but they don’t function as characters would in any other film. Instead, they are like figures in a joke — a farmer, an old coot, and a shepherdess all walk in an art film. All of them circle Leo (Damien Bonnard), a wayward filmmaker searching for his next script and coming up short.
Like in a joke, the world they inhabit is expansive — literally anyone or thing could walk into a bar — and totally closed. And Guiraudie really does go to some far out places, including showing a live, intensely graphic childbirth in one, long clinical close-up, or having a character drink poison and then be gently sodomized to death. Yes, you read that right.
While the film goes to some wacky places, it does so with a fairly small cast of characters. Leo wanders from coot to shepherdess to old guy to farmer, tires of one, and then goes back to another. They all speak in dull monotone, mirroring the film’s laconic poker-face style, and it remind us that that they’re really just templates Guiraudie uses to halfheartedly explore a series of larger topics. They’re literal blank pages.
So here the lady shepherd, dealing with postpartum depression. We’ll spend time with her, but not enough to really get into her issues, and then let her shack up with another character later. There’s the gruff farmer, making awkward passes at Leo. That’s enough of a punchline, right? And hey, there’s an old man in the plot, so why not kill him off and make this film about euthanasia?
Still, for all the undercooked ideas and squirm-inducing sequences, “Staying Vertical” is not a total wash. Guiraudie has an unparalleled sense for nature. He shoots the craggy hills and sweaty marshes of rural France with a poet’s eye, imbuing each hyper-real setting with menace and majesty. And he kills it on sound design, making the winds on a plain sound way more psychedelic than the Pink Floyd that plays on the speaker.
Call it scenery in search of a film. Call it a film in search of a purpose. Call me when Guiraudie releases his next one, because, damn, the guy’s got talent.