As a scriptwriter turns shepherd, Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical reveals an existence of fear and lusting in the Midi-Pyrénées.
Naked Among Wolvesby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Alain Guiraudie follows Stranger By The Lake with a disturbing fantasy about fatherhood and motherhood, and quasi-father son relationships. It was inspired by news stories of wolves returning to France, Guiraudie said when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s also a film about desire and frustration – there are sexual relationships between the four main characters in varying permutations that ebb and flow throughout the film.
Damien Bonnard is Leo, a procrastinating screenwriter driving around the country lanes of northern France. When he sees a pretty young guy (Yoan, Basile Meilleurat) by the roadside, he asks him if he wants to be in a film. The answer is no. Then trekking across the high prairie he meets blonde shepherdess Marie (Linda Hair). After a conversation about the danger of wolves, they have sex. Leo then goes to live with her, her two sons and her Neanderthal-looking farmer father Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry) in their remote stone farmhouse. Leo and Marie have graphic sex shot in gynaecological close-up. Time passes, followed by the explicit actual birth of a baby. Marie suffers post-natal depression and leaves but Leo is happy to have his baby son to himself.
Leo is attracted to either sex and any age and seems to be constantly searching for sexual adventure. He is wandering, but maybe also fleeing from reality. He strikes up a friendship with the angry foul-mouthed old man, Pink Floyd fan, played at maximum volume, Marcel (Christian Bouillette) with whom Yoan lives nearby, in a relationship that it not defined. But then the film takes off into a series of diversions; Marie’s father Jean-Louis, with an unexpected hand on thigh, makes a pass at him; Leo goes to see an alternative therapist in a retreat in the forest who uses tree tendrils to sense his wellbeing, but he is pursued there by his producer chasing the unwritten script, so he escapes. No longer pretending to write his script, so not receiving cash advances from his producer, he’s destitute, but above all trying to cling onto his baby. Robbed and stripped naked by a group of homeless men, who fall on him like a pack of wolves, he has nowhere left to go but back to Marcel, who is dying, and then to Jean-Louis, to be a shepherd in the bleak, flat landscapes of the prairie, while social services take the baby to live with the reluctant mother.
Leo’s story is like a fairy tale, his destiny entwined not just with the three men but with wolves – Guiruadie’s open metaphor for, perhaps, life. Rester Vertical follows Leo’s meandering decline from screenwriter to shepherd, though its cuts from scene to scene can be surprisingly sudden. It’s set in a harsh landscape where brutality is always possible – Leo rescues his baby when Jean-Louis tries to use it as bait for the wolves who killed his flock. And its scenes of sex with both men and women are surprisingly explicit. The title relates to Leo’s advice on facing down a pack of wolves and maybe also his way of dealing with his life – stay standing upright at all costs and don’t show fear.
Staying Vertical screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 15 and 16 October.