Following up his arthouse hit Stranger by the Lake, which played in Un Certain Regard in 2013, agent provocateur Alain Guiraudie returns to Cannes and the main competition with Staying Vertical, an impishly surreal comedy that delights in shocking, prodding and baffling its besieged audience. Leo (Damien Bonnard) is a wandering filmmaker, or at least Guiraudie’s idea of a filmmaker. He roams rural France looking for inspiration. A young man at the side of the road stirs in him inspiration of some kind and so Leo pulls a U-turn and asks if the chap had considered a career in the movies, unaware of the cliché.
Spurned, Leo moves on and on a hike finds a shepherdess, armed with a rifle and wary of the wolves that have been reintroduced into the French countryside and now play havoc with the flock. A single mother bored with her role, Marie (India Hair) is more amenable and following some typically in your face sex, conceive a baby. Cut to baby’s head emerging from a fully dilated vagina, then shoulders, complete with blood, pus and vaginal tearing. Now this can be seen as the enfant terrible shocking us, or it could be us being still shocked by what effectively we’ve all experienced – though some of us can only identify with one of the participants – but would still prefer not to see.
Somewhat surprisingly, Leo takes to fatherhood and continues to delay the script he is writing as he takes over care duties from Laura who is dissatisfied with Leo’s lack of commitment and her own lot, looking after her father’s farm, and departs with her kids in tow. However, here the tale begins to turn twisty as Leo continues his pilgrim’s progress. Fleeing the farm after Marie’s brutish father (Raphaël Thiéry) takes a shine to him, Leo also continues to dip into the lives of the homeless, the young man he originally met and the old man (Christian Bouillette) who might be his lover or father, or possibly both given that everyone in Guiraudie seems to be up for anything. Leo occasionally takes a moment to row up a river to meet a new age healer who sticks plants to him like medical sensors and urges him to finish his script.
Guiraudie’s humour is self-referential and at times hilarious. His tendency to shock might seem adolescent but he’s also careful to identify taboos that perhaps shouldn’t be taboos at all. Staying Vertical isn’t supposed to make any realistic sense – this is Guiraudie’s universe, his characters just live there – and there’s a dreamlike logic as characters couple and decouple in ever new arrangements. The term ‘dreamlike’ also snugly fits Bonnard’s somnambulant persona as he pushes his slightly gormless presence into evermore absurd situations, finding himself destitute and homeless, a victim retreating back to the farm as a form of penance. He’s ultimately a man searching for wolves – but terrified of finding them.