Book author Léo (Damien Bonnard), is conducting research on wolves in the Lozère region of Southern France. It’s hill country, where grassy plateaus are dotted by the occasional rock formation and sheep farms, just like the one Leo encounters on his path, complete the landscape.
Leo meets a shepherd by the name of Marie (India Hair). Nine months later, their baby is born.
What could possibly go wrong with such a quaint pastoral tableau? Oh, you have no idea.
“Rester Vertical,” which refers to the commonly-held belief among cattle farmers that wolves will respect you if you stay standing up, touches on topics like assisted suicide, mothers who abandon their children and homosexual love between the least-probable partners.
Guiraudie, who since his “Stranger by the lake” (2013) holds the unofficial title of French indie cinema’s standardbearer, has directed a film that juxtaposes a matter-of-fact onirism with folk storytelling. Forget about most preconceived notions on parenting or sex. Guiraudie, who also wrote the film, are quickly hustled towards the exit by him.
The strong natural scenery of Lozère reminded me, of course, of the lake in “Stranger.” In the press notes for the film Guiraudie talks affectionately of the outdoors, having spent a lot of time alone playing in nature during what was what he calls a “difficult” childhood. He states that, “men and women, I never filmed anything else,” and yet, nature, in both this new film and the previous one, play a central role, like that proverbial third character.
What is Leo after? He’s a writer in search of a novel but the writer’s block that besets him becomes a handicap. He calls his literary agent repetitively asking for yet another advance, until the tap runs dry and the agent angrily demands to see a first draft.
After Marie suggests that they leave the farm to go up to the city with their child, Leo replies, simply, with a “no.” Disillusioned, she stands him and their newborn up and moves with her own two adolescent boys elsewhere nearby. Leo is now alone with the baby and things don’t go his way.
One of the provocative aspects of “Staying Vertical” is when Guiraudie shows us, reminds us, that there are women who will take no interest in their newborns. During one argument where a breakup seems imminent Marie says, “it’s not always the man who leaves. The woman can do that, too.” In the vignettes that follow Leo will try repeatedly to hustle a young man living nearby, his appetite for bisexual sex treated by Guiraudie almost as if it were a reality experienced by any average male. Leo visits a shrink who lives in a hut in the middle of the jungle, he helps on the farm, all the while carrying his infant child in his arm. The image of a man, alone, bearing a newborn in his embrace is touching but also symbolic—striking, even. Guiraudie turns cliches with such matter-of-factness that it’s disarming.
COMING SOON: my Cannes interview with Alain Guiraudie
Definitely gonna try to see this one when it comes out!