It’s going to be hard to top Staying Vertical in absurdity. It could be called Stranger By The Minute. The film opens with Leo (Damien Bonnard) driving down a country road, until he spots a young guy and stop to ask if he would consider auditioning for a role. Is he trying to pick up the boy or is he really scouting for a role? The scene is deliberately ambiguous and sets the tone for the rest of the film.
We next seem him hiking, a troop of sheep in the distance baa-ing under the watchful eye of a young blonde shepherdess with a strong personality – and a gun to kill the lamb-eating wolves. After a talk about these animals – Marie (India Hair) wants to kill ’em all; he values every life, even that of a viper – she is grabbing and rubbing his crotch. A single mother of two, she takes him home to her farmer father Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry) whose face shows the damage done by working in full exposure of the elements and perhaps even the frustrations of his own life. They soon get horizontal and, nine months later, Leo and Marie have a baby. But partly suffering from post-natal depression and partly resenting Leo for constantly going in and out of her life, she rejects their offspring, not even picking him up when he screams at the top of his lungs for hours.
What does Leo do when he’s out of her life? He basically escapes responsibility, except the baby which he is now taking care of by himself. He suffers from writer’s block yet lies to his agent that his long overdue script is almost done when he has barely written a line. And he always ends his conversations with: “Could you wire me 3,000 euros?”
And Leo goes back to the house to talk to the boy, Yoan.
Yoan (Basile Meilleurat) lives with an old man. His grandpa? His father? Landlord? Or perhaps more? Once again, Guiraudie is deliberately ambiguous. The old geezer, Marcel (Christian Bouillette) complains about the gay boy (“he stole all my savings”) and spews racist and homophobic insults while sitting in his garden chair listening to Pink Floyd full blast. Leo strikes up a friendship with the old Floyd fan but we still can’t quite figure out the purpose of these visits. We suspect he’s physically interested in Yoan, but the feeling is not mutual.
Leo also often visits his therapist, a fairy-like figure who specializes in plant therapy and whose office is located in some enchanted forest steeped in lush greenery. It’s something out of a fairy tale while his real life is closer to a very bad dream, something from the darker side of the moon, just like the film as it gets more surreal with each frame.
And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more absurd, he is soon hiding in a stream where his agent is looking for him. It’s a very cinematic picture, something out of the early 20th century image, a boat rowed by the therapist and the agent pleading him to come out and face his problems.
Yet despite the comically tragic consequences of his actions, Leo manages to remain vertical, even when surrounded by wolves because, according to something Writer-director Alain Guiraudie read, “for the wolf, man is a vertical animal, and that verticality inspires care, respect and wariness.”
Guiraudie is not afraid to take his camera to unchartered territory as he demonstrated in his 2013 thriller Stranger by the Lake, which featured gay sex, and lots of it. In Staying Vertical, besides the gratuitous graphic close-ups of both male and female genitalia, he shows childbirth in full glory, a scene so gooey and muculent that it managed to dissuade me from having children. (I’m over it now.)
He tackles fatherhood, homosexuality and euthanasia, the latter in a most unique, spectacular manner. He even grapples homelessness, although his treatment is somewhat confusing and depicts the homeless as violent and bears no relevance to the story.
The suggestive scenes are plenty, but like the road Leo is seen driving on, they’re full of twists and turns that always hit a cul de sac.