A shepherdess warns Leo, a passing hiker, of wolves in the prairies of southern France in Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical. The screenwriter—for that’s what he is—tells her, on the contrary, he’s fascinated by them and hopes to see one. They sleep together that night, under the roof of her father, a man whose pummeled face and thick, calloused fingers look as if he has survived several boxing careers. The stare he gives the visitor suggests that while wolves stalk outside, inside may hardly be any safer, since Leo fucks rather noisily and the daughter already has two young boys and no husband in sight. The situation does not suggest a happy end to the spontaneous rendezvous. But after sleeping with the screenwriter one more time, the shepherdess instantly gives birth. Our traveling hiker, a sudden father, is strangely unperturbed by this decidedly unlikely chain of events. (I know I wouldn’t believe it unless I saw the baby emerge from its mother’s vagina with my own eyes.) Even with a lover and the magic appearance of a baby, the wayward Leo doesn’t know what he wants. He keeps driving from a gray and horrid northern city where he finds himself creatively uninspired to the southern farm, en route drawn to a ramshackle home that houses a beautiful, sullen young man and an unrelated and homophobic rock music aficionado. (This film's population is decidedly eccentric.) On Leo's first trip down, the screenwriter makes a pass at the country boy; then, the farmer’s daughter. He feels attracted to this countryside of decidedly sensual opportunities and professional escape, but the shepardess, understandably, simply wants to get the hell out of there. Looking at her newborn with little joy, she leaves it in the arms of her irresolute lover, but the baby at first does little to tie him down or point him in the right—or any—direction.
But he does want to keep going, and Guiraudie, following up his sun-dappled murder mystery Stranger by the Lake, places before him a limpid path of unprioritized desires (man, woman, young and old), abrupt yet easy going surprises (the instant baby), and a deft and unmannered touch of fantasy splayed across dreamy moon-lit nights and golden, wind-cropped prairies. Such is the film's relaxed tone of the unexpected that the appearance of some kind of fairy-therapist in a nearby forest who hooks Leo up to a tree and green vines to check his health seems unusual but hardly surprising. The episode brings to Staying Vertical's surface the mild and charming phantasmagoria in which our noncommittal hero seems to float. His job in the cinema suggests, charmingly, that Leo's life is plotted with the unexpected flourishes of strange but sympathetic pen, perhaps his own. Guiraudie’s obvious affection for his characters and his direct but tender sexuality come forth in the film’s most beautiful contrivance of circumstance, desire, and thoughtfulness: a lonely old man, in an act of contrition, is humanely fucked to death by our hero. It is very funny, very tender, and truly odd—a lovely gesture and a triumph of a scene. Is Leo changing? Perhaps the lone responsibility of a child, a creation truly outside himself, has taught him something—certainly a screenwriter would have written it that way, along with a final encounter with the prairie's wolves. It’s what he longed for since the beginning, after all. But I doubt he anticipated the gently surreal pastoral he has to pass through, lightly flush with the erotic and strange unpredictability of the wayward.
NOTEBOOK: What draws you to filming in the south of France?
ALAIN GUIRAUDIE: On the one hand, it’s my home, it’s my world, it’s close to where I live. But the landscapes are also foreign landscapes, which make you think of Westerns or take you to other times.
NOTEBOOK: The northern city seen in Staying Vertical is very dismal in comparison.
GUIRAUDIE: Well, I’m fascinated by nature. I’m fascinated by landscapes—I love them. But I’m fascinated by the world in general, and I like the idea of being able to shoot in a city. I like the fact that, yes, it was a little bit dismal. I like the perspective that offered. I like the fact that it’s a city in France, even though it doesn’t look like other French cities.
NOTEBOOK: What role does magic and mystery have in cinema for you?
GUIRAUDIE: That’s the very interest of cinema. It’s the ability to give a depth and give mystery, and a completely different level, a completely different depth to the platitude of our lives—to the banality of our lives.
NOTEBOOK: Both your last film, Stranger by the Lake, and your new one are very sexually direct. What appeals to you about filming eroticism?
GUIRAUDIE: For a very long time in my films I found it very difficult to approach sex and sexuality, so I used ellipsis, like you see in many films. But then I thought of the fact that I like the bodies of my actors and I thought that I should stop these ellipses—that I had to show sex. Sex is so important in our lives that it should be important in film, too, and it should be present on screen. I like the idea of being transgressive; and I like the idea of transgressing taboos, of not refusing to show things just because they are difficult to show. So, also because of the fact that they’re difficult to show and haven’t been shown, this offers the possibility of innovating, of doing things that are new. Sex has long been considered as something obscene but it can be very beautiful, and it can be beautiful even when it’s triggered directly through a director.
NOTEBOOK: Has working more directly with your actors’ sexuality changed the way you cast your films?
GUIRAUDIE: No, not at all. I don’t choose actors for their willingness to do certain things sexually. I choose the actors that I want to work with and then together we determine what they’re willing to do, how far they’re willing to go, and how far I need them to go. And we choose together what I want to shoot. If necessary in a scene, I don’t have objections in using body doubles for certain scenes or certain shots, so it really depends on what we show; what we do together depends on how far they’re willing to go.
NOTEBOOK: Staying Vertical features a screenwriter searching for inspiration. How do you find inspiration for your cinema?
GUIRAUDIE: If I have writer’s block working on a script, then I change the script and work on something else. But I have to say that it rarely happens that I have writer’s block.
NOTEBOOK: How did you achieve the marvelous fairy tale look of the film's night time scenes?
GUIRAUDIE: It’s very simple: There’s new technology. It allows you today to shoot scenes at night using only moonlight and that’s what we did.
NOTEBOOK: It looks amazing, I thought it was shot day for night.
GUIRAUDIE: No, no. It’s moonlight.
NOTEBOOK: I must ask about Staying Vertical's incredible death scene. How did the idea come to you?
GUIRAUDIE: It’s a mixture of many things, really. It’s a mixture of personal fantasies of mine and also the desire to break certain taboos.
This interview was filmed by Kurt Walker at the Cannes Film Festival. Watch it here.