Paris: the City of Light, the City of Love, and by all reasonable measures the perfect location to suffer an existential crisis. It’s certainly the right place for Gary Newman (Josh Charles), who touches down in the city for a day of business meetings while en route to Dubai, and ends up crippled by a Simenon-sized dose of ennui. This leads him to jettison his job in the middle of a major deal, dump his wife over Skype, and settle into a lethargic torpor in his room, only mildly put off by the uproar he’s caused. It’s not the most promising setup, but thankfully Gary’s isn’t the only story on display in Bird People, which is at its best when focusing on the motions and emotions of people en masse.
These flows of movement are summed up in the film’s snappy opening sequence, which drifts away from Gary as he dreamily exits the airport, the camera pushing off into the larger swell of Parisian commuters, flitting from face to face as bus riders listen to music and chat on their phones, hinting at the potential movie plots hidden away behind each impassive face. Foremost among these is Audrey Camuzet (Anaïs Demoustier), a young hotel maid who’s allotted her own section of the story, eventually crossing paths with the puzzled American visitor. Until then, she plods on through her own personal crises: A college dropout coming off a somewhat recent breakup, Audrey stumbles through the motions of a job for which she’s clearly not well suited. The film establishes these two characters as narrative counterweights, a middle-aged wanderer who’s spontaneously chosen to give up everything versus a frustrated youth trying to chart her path in life.
The possibility of romantic connection between the two is dangled, but Ferran’s film is more concerned with how these characters integrate into a larger network of untold stories. It’s fitting that the Paris presented here isn’t the glittering jewel of the Champs-Elysees or the glamorous decay of the Montmartre, but the featureless nether zone near Charles De Gaulle, a landscape in which tall airport hotels stand isolated among ribbons of highway, a place in which all movement is transient. This drab setting assures us that Gary’s decision to throw off the shackles of his monotonous workaday existence isn’t some clichéd case of sudden fascination with the magic of the city, and his habit of staring off at objects in the distance points to what he’s really craving, something outside his own narrow experience, something to define himself beyond the demands of a vague job and a distant spouse.
What that will be remains a mystery, but the film expresses a similar interest in pushing beyond the familiar; it repeats images of ascending planes and scattered sparrows to establish a focus on escape while also acknowledging its difficulty, opting for the contemplation of characters trapped within themselves. These long periods of buildup are balanced by fleeting moments of transcendence, most of them coming after an unexpected twist allows Audrey to gain new perspective. Briefly freed from quotidian demands, she shifts from a limited perception—straightening up the momentarily unoccupied rooms of anonymous travelers—to the bird’s eye view occupied by the camera itself, a move that shakes off much of the film’s early torpor. But Bird People isn’t daring enough to fully embrace the narrative fragmentation that it sporadically assumes. Offering only tantalizing glimpses of the other stories lurking at its fringes, it ends up vesting too much time and interest in assigning half-conceived story outlines to its two under-developed main characters, and so its populist approach becomes less about any actual meditation on universal connection than a soft-touch “everybody hurts”-style roundelay.
The film thankfully never approaches the mushiness of a Babel or Crash, in which various connected stories are whipped up into a sweet, smoothie-style concoction, though it’s marred by small, distracting missteps—an unnecessary narrator here, a needlessly bifurcated structure there—which act as further signs of its overall ungainliness. A humanist parable in the same vein as Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Bird People ultimately lacks that movie’s precision and focus, and its similarly expansive points end up dampened as a result, stuck halfway between an entirely novel approach and the familiar story of two perplexed seekers finding solace in each other. The film never decides on either angle, and while that ambiguity jibes with the overall air of weirdness on display here, it also leaves things feeling incomplete.