Gender roles, specifically masculinity as a social construct, within relationships are flipped on their head in Alain Guiraudie's latest film, Rester Vertical [AKA Staying Vertical] (2016). It's a film of bleak comicality that blends perceptions of the real world with surrealism. The trajectory of this film is unforeseeable from its outset, and by the end of the film the journey that has unfolded on screen continuously outdoes the events that came before it. I saw this film at its US premiere at the 54th New York Film Festival, and Alain Guiraudie mentioned during the Q&A following the film (which was conducted by Dennis Lim) that the word "Guiraudian" has yet to have been applied to his work (whereas "Hitchcockian" has), so I will attempt to outline the qualities of the director's work in correlation to this film and that which preceded it, Stranger By The Lake (2013), to highlight his singular authorship.
Defying logic while shaping a logic of its own, Rester Vertical opens with a phantom ride as the camera glides across a narrow rocky road on a yet-unseen car. It's unsettling, and yet it's entirely natural. A young man, Yoan (Basil Meilleurat), is standing alongside the road with an elderly man sitting on the opposite side. Excessively loud rock music plays from inside the old man's house, and its muffled sounds can be heard on the street. The car stops, and our protagonist, Léo (Damien Bonnard), exits the car to talk to Yoan. Young and handsome with long hair, Léo asks if Yoan would like to be in a film because he has a great look. It seems innocent, but Yoan's body language and response suggests that he feels that he is being coerced into sex. That may not have been the case at first, but Léo becomes obsessed with Yoan, and attempts to see him again with little luck. These failed attempts initiate an idiosyncratic rapport between Léo and the elderly man, Marcel (Christian Bouillette) – a hilariously racist and homophobic man who sits around listening to rock music that he claims is Pink Floyd (when, in actuality, it isn't).
While Léo's pursuit for Yoan is in full swing, he starts a relationship with the daughter of a shepherd, Marie (India Hair), that escalates into a sexual relationship with commitment almost instantly. Léo has dinner with her father that evening, and then has sex with Marie again in her bedroom.
This brings us to one of Guiraudie's strongest attributes as a filmmaker – his honest on screen portrayal of sex. Depicting sex on screen is innately provocative, but Guiraudie presents it as matter of fact whilst focusing on the source of pleasure: genitals. On three separate occasions, Guiraudie presents the female anatomy in a head-on composition reminiscent of Gustave Courbet's oil painting L'Origine du monde (1866). It's all at once sensual and natural, and the audience is asked to look at the body as both an intimate device and more broadly as something worth seeing and discussing in cinema within a non-prurient context.
Beyond that, Alain Guiraidie is a mathematical filmmaker in his presentation of content and results. We see the female anatomy in one scene, and then we see the act of sex, followed by an actual birth – L'Origine du monde, indeed! X + Y = baby boy. Just like that, 9 months of the narrative vanish. There is no pregnancy sequence, and there are only context clues as to what Léo and Marie's life has been like during that unseen pregnancy. As in Dali and Buñuel's Un chien Andalou (1929), time and its passing is irrelevant, and things change and others do not for reasons that are unexplainable. Almost every film has cause and effect relationships from scene to scene, and Rester Vertical accentuates causes and effects to the point of absurdity.
Léo is a screenwriter (potentially the director of his own work as well), and he's struggling to write his newest screenplay while he's receiving money to live off from his producer who trusts that Léo is making progress. Realistically, there's nothing to show for the money the producer is giving to Léo every month, so he chooses to hunt down Léo, on a canoe going down an Amazonian-like river shouting, "I just want my screenplay," like Robert Duvall trying to reclaim his surfboard in Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). It's a cause and effect that could not be imagined prior to it happening (we hadn't even seen the producer on screen up until this point).
Contributing to the surrealistic quality of the film's narrative is the fluid sexuality exhibited by every central male character in the film. Homosexuality was the progressive punchline at the conclusion of Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959), but here it's an ongoing gag that puts standards of masculinity to task. All of the sexual advances come from straight men directed at other straight men, and almost all of them are accepted (and if they're not accepted by one character, that character will accept the offer from another man later on). That which is on the surface is not indicative of what the body will desire or willingly give, which plays into Guiraudie's natural portrayal of the human body.
Following one of the finest films made this decade so far, Stranger By The Lake, Alain Guiraudie has the difficult task of continuing to grow while solidifying his Guiraudian touch that so many of us became aware of after that film's success. With Rester Vertical, he excels by going in the opposite direction spatially and tonally. Where Stranger By The Lake was set against a single lake, Rester Vertical finds itself going from the prairies of France to cityscapes and jungle-like terrain. In Stranger By The Lake, there's a hilariously awkward voyeuristic character who wanders around watching all of the couples have sex in the woods while nonchalantly pleasuring himself, and Rester Vertical is a film entirely comprised of moments like that.
Though Rester Vertical is not perfect, it's a fun, idiosyncratic piece of filmmaking that demonstrates that Guiraudie has a lot to offer. Symbolic and totally within the real at times, the visual metaphors give this surrealistic film a transcendental quality – something that is spiritual in its melancholy and hilarious in its tragedies. A pure Guiraudian experience, Rester Vertical's narrative develops in ways that are quite unlike anything that one could predict, and it will be a pleasure to revisit this film to further examine how it arrives where it eventually does and to laugh in the face of death and tremble at the sight of coming to existence.
My rating: 4/5