“Staying Vertical,” the new film from French director Alain Giraudie, is really two short films roughly attached back-to-back. The first is an intriguing but fairly standard drama in the prevailing French style. The other is a wild parody of that style. Taken together, they comprise a challenging but energetic film full of invention.
The film opens with Léo (Damien Bonnard) driving down a twisting country road. Along the way he stops a young man on the side of the road and asks if he’s ever thought about being an actor in a movie. It seems like Léo is just coming on to the man at first, until we learn later that he’s actually a screenwriter stuck in an endless cycle of procrastination, alternating with pleas to the director to forward him more money.
Léo moves on to a farmhouse where Marie (India Hair) is tending after a flock of sheep. She’s accompanied by an enormous dog and a rifle to shoot wolves, a motif that will reappear throughout the film. The two strike up a quick relationship, told through a series of comically explicit sex scenes in a handful of days, and then suddenly it’s nine months later. The time jump is explained through a sustained shot of a baby’s birth.
Marie has two other children, but she develops postpartum depression and takes them to live elsewhere, leaving Léo and the baby with her bulldog-faced father, Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiery). Up to this point, the film has been relatively reserved. There’s no score, the compositions are often sober and simple, and the acting is reserved. But the tone of the action begins to change, becoming increasingly frenetic and almost surreal, even as the actors remain just as deadpan.
Rather than another example of the new French tradition of quality that permeates most of the films that make it to the U.S., “Staying Vertical” becomes a parody of those films. The film’s lack of a score gives it a studied seriousness, which it promptly punctures halfway through with an old man who listens to nothing but Pink Floyd turned up to an ungodly volume. At another point, Léo meets a homeless man in the city, and later becomes homeless himself. For a moment, the film looks like it might become a socialist realist drama of the downtrodden, in the mold of a Dardenne brothers film, but then it also parodies that concept. A newly homeless Léo and his baby are accosted by a group of beggars in a cartoonish scene; as soon as the crowd clears, Léo is left standing completely nude clutching his baby in a blanket.
There are plenty of other moments throughout the film where its previous realism is punctured by bits of slapstick and ridiculousness. The two halves of the films just barely cohere, but Bonnard’s performance as Léo is what makes it all work. He has a blank face, which seems somewhat sinister early on, before the movie has revealed itself. He might as easily be a serial killer as a wandering vagabond. But once the movie reveals itself, his empty face ratchets up the comedy. Instead of a cold and calculating person, he turns into a fool at the whim of a cruel universe. The other supporting characters, particularly Thiery, also come to life only when the film makes the switch to dark comedy.
“Staying Vertical” is a provocation. It aims for some people to leave the theater in anger once it rips of its mask and reveals its true intentions. But the film at the heart of the movie is far more interesting, even if it’s a bit frustrating.
Watch the trailer below: