At some point or another, every major international filmmaker gets the itch to broaden their audience and work with big (or biggish) names for a film that, at least in part, is in the English language. The latest director to experiment away from their native tongue is Pascal Ferran, who made a splash eight years ago with her three-hour French adaptation of D.H. Lawrence‘s “Lady Chatterley.” “Bird People,” which is in large part in English, and features a number of recognizable faces, including Josh Charles, Radha Mitchell and “The Wire” actor (and director) Clark Johnson, has its vocal champions here in Cannes, but we were legitimately puzzled by the film, which combines a drab, enervating English-language first half with a better, but still not entirely successful, second that marks a major departure from what’s come before.
After a brief prologue in which Ferran delves into the thoughts of passengers on a train, we settle into the confines of Paris’, Charles De Gaulle airport. In the first half, Charles’ Gary Newman (a name which got unintentional laughs from us every time, both because of its thudding obviousness, and because if made us think of the singer of “Cars“), an American en route to Dubai on a business trip, seems to be hit by a sudden mid-life crisis, and announces that he’s quitting his job in the middle of a crucial deal, leaving his wife (Mitchell) and children, and staying in Europe.
In the second half, Audrey (Anais Demoustier) is a young woman in her early twenties, working as a maid in the airport hotel where Gary’s staying. She’s fascinated by the inner lives of the guests, which, in part, leads her up to the roof one night where something very unexpected happens. To say too much would be to ruin the film’s surprise, and you probably need that to at least pick you up after the film’s first half.
Which, it should be said, is dire. Ferran’s intention appears to be to show the act of a man blowing up his own life from an almost procedural aspect, with phone calls to employers, attorneys and loved ones where he tells them what he’s up to, if not why (it’s an interesting companion piece to the recent “Locke” in some ways). But by only very vaguely hinting at Gary’s reason for doing so, and keeping him at arm’s length, the director makes the whole of this first hour kind of a shrug, and we’d basically checked out by the end.
Particularly patience-stretching is an extended Skype call to his wife, played out over 15 minutes or so, essentially cutting between a single shot of Charles and another of Mitchell on a laptop monitor. The actors do their best with the it’s-ok-we-ran-it-once-through-Google-Translate dialogue, but it’s still stilted and counter-intuitive, and pretty much makes you despise the characters (it might well be deliberate that they don’t mention their children until the end of the call, but it feels like a major omission).
Things do certainly pick up in the second half, which features some stunning aerial photography and effects work, and a certain sprinkling of magic. It’s also here that Ferran’s overarching theme of alienation and loneliness clicks into place, which at least helps to make sense of the first half, though it can’t retroactively make it any less dull.
Colleagues we love and respect were raving about this selection here in Cannes, but we have to confess that, even while we liked it more, we still felt a fairly profound disconnect. There are moments of beauty and charm, but also ones that felt rather broad, like an extract from a live-action Disney movie or something. It is fitfully interesting, but nearly broke our twee detectors.
We’ll say this in favor of “Bird People”—it’s very different from anything on the Croisette this year, and indeed from any of Ferran’s earlier films. But the whole thing landed with a bit of thud. We just found it too oblique, too delighted with itself and frankly, too dull, to admire it much. It’s probably a good thing that it exists, but it’s not for us. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. “Bird People” opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday.