On paper, Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical sounds like a great many relationship dramas. Léo (Damien Bonnard) is a drifting screenwriter who alternatingly resides in hotel rooms and crashes with strangers, becoming involved with Marie (India Hair), a woman living somewhere in the French countryside. They have a child together, and Marie leaves Léo and the baby, which inspires the man to grapple with his selfishness as he struggles to raise his son and come up with a screenplay adequate enough to pay his mounting expenses. But little is ordinary about Staying Vertical, which has more in common with Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake than is initially apparent. Both exhibit a powerfully tactile understanding of sexual relationships as universes onto themselves, both overwhelmingly concern stifled male sexuality, and both pivot on heroes who are essentially and existentially displaced voyeurs.
Staying Vertical tellingly opens with a prolonged traveling shot from Léo’s perspective as he drives into the country, lulling audiences as the beautiful scenery passes by the vehicle’s windows, allowing us to explicitly understand that we’re in the process of temporarily donning his consciousness. Variations of this shot resurface throughout the film, pulling us deeper into the protagonist’s mental state, even as he sheds identities of his own, restarting his sense of self over and again. The narrative suggests an anxiety dream in its scattered hostility toward momentum: Leo frequently takes one step forward in his life, only to go stumbling three steps back.
Léo’s anxieties at once circulate around his desire for freedom and stability—a common enough paradox for an aging, quasi-bohemian artist. Léo and Marie’s relationship is dramatized as a series of sharp, intimate stanzas that revel both in the constrictions and comfort of normative relationships. Most memorably, Guiraudie lingers on Marie’s vagina in close-up as Léo’s head rests on her stomach. In this and other images, we feel so close to this couple that we can practically discern the heat emanating from their bodies. Yet both parties have other desires. Apart from Marie feeling trapped by her father, Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry), helping him to farm and guard his lambs from wolves, her yearnings are hauntingly, pointedly unexplored, though she’s clearly unhappy, while Léo has pronounced sexual tension with nearly every man he meets. (Marie is one of only two women in the film.)
Audiences may initially wonder if Léo is a con artist, given how he drifts from situation to situation with a peculiar element of self-entitlement (along with rigid body language that literalizes the film’s title), shedding the skins of writer, farmer, lover, father, and wanderer. He thinks nothing of stopping by the side of the road to hit on a handsome young man, Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), under the embarrassingly tired pretense of scouting for a film. And Léo soon forms a bond with the older man with whom Yoan lives on and off again, Marcel, who is played by Christian Bouillette with a hilarious, cumulatively poignant aura of salty bitterness. Léo ping-pongs back and forth between these characters in a series of increasingly violent and sexualized episodes, often dwarfed by the gorgeous yet threatening landscapes, as the urgency of his constant movement grows more distressful.
Staying Vertical changes gears whenever one is lulled into believing that it has finally settled into a recognizable narrative pattern. Léo eventually sits down to write the screenplay that stymies him, camping along a river with a healer and a film producer, and we assume that it’s time for his happy ending to commence, but he’s soon compelled to hit the road again, risking poverty and death for reasons of infuriating vagueness. All this shifting about provokes a dry and frustrated suspense within us: We want Léo to stop for a moment so as to allow the film to tell us precisely what it is. Guiraudie resists genre boundaries the way that Léo resists pigeonholing himself into one life.
Many works of surrealism telegraph to us that they’re not to be taken as “real,” whatever that word means; for our purposes, it signifies that the characters adhere to traditional psychological motivations, and that the narrative follows a recognizably rational logic. Most David Lynch films, for instance, are clearly set in a fantasy world, which is signaled through luridly heightened formality. But when Jean-Louis places his infant grandson out in the middle of a prairie field as bait for wolves, Guiraudie films the scene drolly, refusing to distance us from the gravity of this atrocity with “surreal” coding, in a fashion that’s reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s late-period filmography.
Staying Vertical doesn’t prepare us for this act, as one doesn’t expect Jean-Louis to be deranged, just as one doesn’t expect for him to hit on Léo with hungry ferocity, or for the consequences of these actions to be indifferently brushed under the carpet as if they were never committed. But there’s nothing earlier in the film that refutes the emotional logic of these scenes either. We’re surprised because we assume that Jean-Louis is an inherently uninteresting old man possessing few interior drives, in the tradition of many elderly people in cinema. Marcel similarly shatters this cliché, particularly in a prolonged death/sex scene of boldly figurative emotional power.
Guiraudie simulates true chaos by refusing to adhere to standardized notions of foreshadowing and payoff. This film can’t be called a thriller, domestic drama, or morality tale, as it’s a hybrid that captures various interior states of panic and detachment—as well as a longing for escape from these emotional realms. The climax restores some measure of orientation with poetic symbolism that contextualizes Staying Vertical as a coming-of-age story, but it scarcely reassures us, because Guiraudie has so confidently sent us scurrying out and about in the desperate farcical wilderness, where anything goes.