The child is very much father to the man in “Staying Vertical,” a serenely nutty cinematic pastoral that unfolds at the crossroads of life and death, freedom and responsibility, this world and the next. The film follows a screenwriter in his 30s named Leo (Damien Bonnard) into the open countryside, where he shacks up with a shepherdess, has a baby boy and soon finds himself dealing with much more than just a crippling case of writer’s block.
The movie, for its part, hardly wants for creative inspiration. You could probably imagine a much straighter (in every sense) version of this story — one that doesn’t feature quite as many growling wolves, eccentric sexual configurations and scenes of botanical electrode therapy.
But really, where would be the fun in that? The French writer-director Alain Guiraudie has a gift for burrowing his way into the human soul by way of the libido, and he works in a searching, serio-comic style that refuses to separate life’s wildest extremes into neat, narratively expedient compartments. With “Staying Vertical,” he has made the sort of movie that is often described as “not knowing what kind of film it wants to be” — a dismissal that, in this case, should instead be considered high praise.
Guiraudie came to international prominence with his 2013 Cannes Film Festival sensation “Stranger by the Lake,” a wickedly seductive thriller that observed the comings and goings at a secluded gay cruising spot with both erotic heat and chilly analytical rigor. To say that “Staying Vertical” touches on some of the same preoccupations — the great outdoors, the dark side of desire, manhood and its discontents — is at once perfectly true and faintly misleading. What it lacks in its predecessor’s exacting formal control, the new movie more than makes up for in its capacity to surprise. It could be titled “Stranger by the Minute.”
It begins simply enough. Leo finds himself traveling among the windswept wilds of southwestern France (beautifully photographed by Claire Mathon), searching for writerly inspiration and fascinated by the wolves that inhabit the region. He falls into bed with a rural woman named Marie (India Hair), who oversees a flock of sheep with her gruff dad, Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry), and her two young sons. She soon gives birth to a third, an event that Guiraudie observes in unsparingly gooey detail — one of several full-frontal close-ups that, under the camera’s unflinching gaze, seem to evoke Gustave Courbet’s famous nude, “The Origin of the World.”
But Marie, the only female character of any stature, soon recedes from the picture, moving to the city with her two older sons and leaving Leo to care for their infant alone. Leo continues to drift, putting off the screenplay he’s writing and dragging his son along from scene to scene with an odd mix of affection and carelessness.
He also pays regular visits to a nearby cottage where Marcel (Christian Bouillette), a grouchy old shut-in, likes to blast Pink Floyd and yell anti-gay slurs at his houseguest, a sullen young man named Yoan (Basile Meilleurat). Their love-hate codependency seems forever on the brink of shifting into outright homoerotic desire, and it finds a strange echo in Leo’s own continually evolving relationship with Jean-Louis.
By the time Leo gets into a canoe and paddles his way downriver in search of a marsh-dwelling plant therapist (Laure Calamy), “Staying Vertical” has taken on the demented illogic and inexplicable clarity of a dream. Not the kind of dream that teems with bold, hallucinatory imagery, but rather the kind that thrives on steadily escalating degrees of narrative derangement, in which even the story’s weirdest formulations seem rooted in the banality of the everyday.
Characters disappear at random only to reemerge in strange new configurations. Traditional roles are slyly recast; people you didn’t think knew each other turn out to know each other. The movie’s circular, repetitive structure increasingly seems to mirror the cyclical nature of all existence. Sex is linked as closely to death as it is to life, l’origin du monde and la petite mort rolled into one.
Its title a sly reference to what distinguishes men from beasts, “Staying Vertical” hinges on the tension between primal instincts and socially proscribed behavior. Guiraudie isn’t just trying to decimate sexual taboos; he is also taking gently comic aim at the overly rigid roles into which people tend to lock themselves. And he has an ideal collaborator in Bonnard, the kind of actor who keeps you at a slight remove initially only to become an increasingly empathetic figure as the movie wends its way toward its strange, and strangely moving, destination.
Of all the roles a man might be called on to play in the world — father, lover, protector, provider — how does he reconcile any single one with all the others? Guiraudie’s crazily compassionate filmmaking creates a space for all manner of male fantasies and anxieties, however dark, shameful or grotesque, to assert themselves. And he does this without losing sight of those wolves prowling at the edges of the story — a reminder of the very real predators lying out there in wait, to say nothing of those lurking within.
In French with English subtitles
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles, and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena