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Review: The Surreal Pastoral of "Staying Vertical"

French director Alain Guirauide's mild and charming phantasmagoria set in Southern France is flush with the erotic and unpredictable.
Staying Vertical
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.

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