Writer-director Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake was certainly singular, but it also had a lot of genre and thematic touchstones: the procedural, gay-cruising subculture, voyeurism, and so on. Threading everything together was an intoxicating sense of place; the setting was a riverside, homoerotic Eden both liberated and spoiled by its sinners’ trespasses. Genuine suspense came from purposeful juxtapositions of pastoral peace and carnal restlessness, and Guiraudie’s sharp modulations in tone galvanized the diffuse plotting. According to some fans, the approach made Stranger by the Lake Guiraudie’s most direct and conventional film. But any concern over that direction taking hold over the French filmmaker should be stifled by the willful outlandishness of Staying Vertical.
Guiraudie’s latest represents a lot of the same interests that were woven into Stranger by the Lake: pan-sexuality, May-December couplings, explicitly objectified bodies, and repressed desire that verges on violence. But the locations are many and largely undefined, and the intimacy of the relationships is complicated by interjections of magic realism. A loose plot is centered on nomadic writer, Leo (Damien Bonnard), and his tentative attempts to start a family. Leo also has a sort of creepy fascination with a teenage boy he thinks possesses “Hollywood” good looks, and is constantly requesting monetary advances from an unnamed benefactor for a screenplay he never seems to have any intent of finishing.
It’s anxiety for the unfinished that contextualizes both Leo’s tendency toward transience (he flits geographically between his girlfriend’s sheep farm, the suburban home of his teenaged fetish object, and various hotels in the city) and Staying Vertical’s discursive plot progression. And it’s the ultimate, if inconsistent, solidarity of sexually marginalized men that lends Guiraudie’s film a gradually developing emotional resonance. But the kind of playful abstraction that allows for inspired insanity like an attack by a group of homeless men that leaves Leo naked in the street, or the Pink Floyd-scored climax that warrants the delirious newspaper headline “Man sodomizes, then euthanizes, elderly man in front of his baby” also surrenders Staying Vertical to a kind of dream logic. Eventually that means more than an abstraction of narrative, but rather an abstraction of the characters within it, to the detriment of understanding their connection to each other.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.