And the newspaper headline reads: “He sodomised then euthanizes an old man in front of his baby.”
Out of context, headlines can be funny things. This film is definitely a comedy, and one that has the sensibilities of director Alain Guiraudie’s previous works, including STRANGER BY THE LAKE and THE KING OF ESCAPE. You may feel that the above headline from within a scene in STAYING VERTICAL suggests the film is some kind of horrific, gore porn-fest, but would it surprise you to hear that it’s far more of a queering of the rural heteronormative narrative, with brief flashes of comedic brilliance? In THE KING OF ESCAPE, tractor salesman Armand, an out-and-out homosexual, runs off a young woman named Curlie and decides he is decidedly more bisexual than he previously thought. In STRANGER BY THE LAKE, the conventions of a mid-career Hitchcock film are utilised to great effect with Franck’s tale of dangerous lust in an isolated, lakeside cruising spot for gay men. Guiraudie has a track record for taking the conventional and queering it up in a quirky, idiosyncratic and totally French manner. STAYING VERTICAL is no different and no less enjoyable a cinematic experience.
Léo (Damien Bonnard) is a filmmaker looking to shoot a feature film which may or may not involve wolves, as he is out in the French countryside whilst struggling to get round to completing his film script. Luckily he has a producer on the end of the phone who every so often wires through some euros to finance his stay in the rural French wilderness where wolves have been re-introduced. Driving past a young lad on the side of the road, he remarks that “you don’t see too many faces like yours around here.” The homoerotic subtext to the plot is introduced, but like THE KING OF ESCAPE, it is a bisexual one, as Léo ends up befriending, bedding, and in a somewhat sterile and scientific way of putting it, impregnating a young shepherdess named Marie (India Hair). There are the familiar close-up shots of genitalia that fans of Guiraudie will know the director is not fearful of showing – treating Marie’s vagina as no less interesting a physiological part of the human body than her hair or her eyes. Marie’s complete lack of interest in looking after her child when it is born, and oh boy, do you see him being born in explicit detail, can perhaps be read again as a queering of the norm where the narrative would usually be: mother looks after child, father moves away and falls in love with the girl in the next scene. Not so in STAYING VERTICAL. Léo becomes the primary care-giver for his son, although not technically the bread winner as he still has a bit of an issue completing that film script of his.
Could it be that this is an accurate, if rather comical at times, look at what it is to be French in 2016?
The queer plot then comes to the fore in the second half of the feature with some delightfully funny moments involving Marie’s emotionally repressed shepherd father, and an old man, who lives in a backroad cottage, and may or may not want to depart this mortal coil in the manner of his choosing. Pink Floyd songs loudly soundtrack the second half as the action moves from rural to urban and then back again. What is interesting though is the France that Guiraudie depicts. Yes, it may seem humorous to have a principle band of characters all express their sexual desires in manners that are not exactly heterosexual. Perhaps that seems fantastical in the context of a cinema that for the good part of one hundred years has had a very fraught relationship with the notion of homosexuality in cinema. But also, could it be that this is an accurate, if rather comical at times, look at what it is to be French in 2016? To be young, middle-aged and elderly in a country still well within the top ten richest countries worldwide. With Western values influenced by years and years and years of immigration and emigration and constant evolution. Perhaps what Guiraudie is trying to show is that your values may seem strange to people who don’t practice them, but as long as you stand tall, your views and thoughts on life, existence, sex and pleasure will be taken into consideration and if not adopted, then understood and empathised with. It’s barmy, it’s very French, it wears its colours firmly on its sleeve, and it’s great to see STAYING VERTICAL accepted into the Competition at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. Will Guiraudie win the coveted Palme d’Or his latest film? It remains to be seen. But he is being allowed to evolve in a cinematic landscape of a tolerant, inquisitive France in the early years of the twenty-first century, and that can only be a good thing.