Three years ago, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake was the surprise hit of Cannes, winning the Un Certain Regard award for Best Director and becoming a cult hit. It went on to top Cahiers du Cinéma’s yearly top ten list, and was ICS’s own Best Picture winner for 2014. After seeing Stranger by the Lake‘s parade of full frontal nudity and cumshots in close-up, moviegoers unfamiliar with Guiraudie’s previous work, or without an understanding of why Guiraudie selects the content that he mounts, appear to expect something different than what Guiraudie’s first competition entry aims for. As such, they risk missing seeing Staying Vertical as a compassionate, humane, and gently humourous, if melancholic and remote, surreal portrait of confusion.
Leo (Damien Bonnard) is a screenwriter, travelling through the south of France looking for inspiration, as he evades calls inquiring on the state of his current work. Early on he meets Marie (India Hair), a sheep farmer who is guarding her flocks against the attack of wolves. Marie already lives with her father Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry) and two sons, and Leo soon becomes an intermittent fixture in their lives, coming and going to work on their farm and sharing conjugal visits with Marie.
Nine months later, Marie has borne Leo’s child, and between her post-partum and his general uncertainty, Marie moves out with her two sons. This leaves Leo in a conflict of interest, as he must raise their child without her while still being forced to live with her father. Meanwhile, as Leo struggles to find artistic inspiration for the screenplay, he meets Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), a troubled teen who who steals from Marcel (Christian Bouillette), the old man he cares for. He is a haunting figure to Leo, and someone who he would like to use as his muse. His relationships with Yoan, Marie, Marcel, and Jean-Louis eventually become complicated and convoluted, as they all figure into his personal journey, if it can even be called a “journey.”
At first glance, Staying Vertical is less formalistic than Stranger by the Lake, at least visually and conceptually: Stranger by the Lake is very much an outdoor huis clos, while Staying Vertical is sprawling and meandering, and its disconcerting claustrophobia comes from feeling lost in the emptiness of open space. It would be counter-productive to mention some of the confounding, and apparently outrageous moments (and there are many) in Staying Vertical: out of context, it is understandable that some of Guiraudie’s content sounds shocking or gratuitous. But the ideas that it introduces and appears not to justify or fully develop, are in fact red herrings that underline the surrealism of Leo’s underlying sadness and perplexity. And it is true that they should read as shocking or flamboyant, but Guiraudie’s touch is sensitive and tender, and makes these moments delicate and beautiful.
After considering its vaguely dreamlike structure, Staying Vertical proves to be more cohesive than its narrative would suggest it should be. While its mosaic of narrative events do not add up to a logical whole, they become part of a complete, thoughtful, and penetrating collection of impressions, with imagery and ideas that prove to be worthy of rumination.