The child is very much father to the man in “Staying Vertical,” a serenely nutty cinematic pastoral that unfolds at the crossroads of life and death, freedom and responsibility, this world and the next. The film follows a screenwriter in his 30s named Leo (Damien Bonnard) into the open countryside, where he shacks up with a shepherdess, has a baby boy and soon finds himself dealing with much more than just a crippling case of writer’s block.
The movie, for its part, hardly wants for creative inspiration. You could probably imagine a much straighter (in every sense) version of this story — one that doesn’t feature quite as many growling wolves, eccentric sexual configurations and scenes of botanical electrode therapy.
But really, where would be the fun in that? Writer-director Alain Guiraudie has a gift for burrowing his way into the human soul by way of the libido, and he works in a searching, serio-comic style that refuses to separate life’s wildest extremes into neat, narratively expedient compartments. With “Staying Vertical,” he has made the sort of movie that is often described as “not knowing what kind of film it wants to be” — a dismissal that, in this case, should instead be considered high praise.
Guiraudie came to international prominence with his 2013 Cannes Film Festival sensation “Stranger by the Lake,” a wickedly seductive thriller that observed the comings and goings at a secluded gay cruising spot with both erotic heat and chilly analytical rigor. To say that “Staying Vertical” touches on some of the same preoccupations — the great outdoors, the dark side of desire, manhood and its discontents — is at once perfectly true and faintly misleading. What it lacks in its predecessor’s exacting formal control, the new movie more than makes up for in its capacity to surprise. It could be titled “Stranger by the Minute.”
Cast: Damien Bonnard, India Hair, Raphaël Thiéry, Christian Bouillette.
Writer-director: Alain Guiraudie.
A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 100 minutes. Graphic nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In French with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade: Miami Beach Cinematheque.