For nearly 30 years, French director Alain Guiraudie has been developing a daring and transgressive filmography about the travails of modern sexual identity. It wasn’t until 2013, however, that more of the world started to take notice. But the added attention hardly changed his trajectory.
That was when Guiraudie’s erotic thriller “Stranger By the Lake” shocked crowds in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, with its thrilling and explicit tale of a clandestine gay hookup site that winds up setting the stage for a murder. Guiraudie’s elegant blend of introspective dialogue and jarring sex scenes with stylish genre elements was the talk of Cannes and beyond: It landed him a best director prize at the festival, rave reviews and a global box office take of $1.6 million, a healthy number for such an unorthodox project.
Guiraudie was suddenly perceived as a major director in one of the world’s cinema capitals.
Rather than diving into one of the more mainstream projects suddenly thrust his way, however, Guiraudie saw an opportunity to indulge in even more audacious material.
“I knew I could be much freer in making my next film,” he said through a translator in an interview last fall, when the results of that effort made its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. The results speak to Guiraudie’s uncompromising approach: “Staying Vertical,” which first screened in competition at Cannes last May, makes “Stranger By the Lake” look downright conventional.
The new movie is a fascinating cinematic puzzle, in which a wayward filmmaker named Leo (Damien Bonnard) falls in love with a shepherdess in the countryside and fathers a child with her, only to wind up abandoned by her and trapped in the quiet region with a series of eccentric characters. Leo’s ensuing plight finds him intrigued by the relationship between a cranky old man and his much younger roommate who live nearby. Whether or not the men are actually lovers matters less than the way their bond intrigues and possibly even titillates Leo as he’s drawn into a series of sexual adventures riddled with ambiguity. Graphic sex and sudden violence ensue through a series of outrageous twists.
As Leo searches for his place in this barren landscape, his reality starts to cave in, as it’s increasingly unclear whether he’s imagining the bizarre circumstances that consume him at every turn. Guiraudie described his intentions with the movie as a cross between David Lynch and Luis Buñuel — a far trickier balance than the comparatively straightforward mysteries of “Stranger By the Lake.”
The director recognized that more conservative viewers had an easier time digesting the Hitchockian thrills of his previous effort, which helped to explain its success. “It was a pretty classic film, with naked parts,” Guiraudie said. “So a lot of people who had discovered my work through ‘Stranger By the Lake’ were disappointed by this one.”
Setting aside earlier expectations, however, makes “Staying Vertical” entirely engaging on its own terms. Guiraudie’s ambiguous narrative allows him to play marvelously with tone.
Take, for example, the lengthy sequence in which Leo attempts to console a dying man — and eventually finds himself having sex with the ailing figure in his final moments. The scene unfolds with a peculiar blend of absurdity and poignance. “I was trying to take a moment that’s very emotional and touching while finding the humor in it,” he said, while expressing a desire to find more such bits in his next project. “I think my future lies in black comedy.”
He relished the opportunity to confuse his audience. “I’m interested in dreamlike narratives that merge with reality so it becomes difficult to tell which is which,” he said, elaborating on the function of that approach in the context of the new film. “You really don’t know if Leo is homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual.” That theme provides a striking contrast with “Stranger By the Lake,” which Guiraudie said “was a film about gay in a very particular time, so I think that those kind of labels don’t really apply to this film.”
In essence, “Staying Vertical” expands Guiraudie’s ability to explore sexuality by suggesting that it has flexible boundaries.
Guiraudie’s filmmaking has never been easy to categorize, but he has a fluid style. His queer narratives found a support system on the festival circuit with 2001’s “That Old Dream That Moves,” the puzzling tale of lonely factory workers transfixed by the efforts of a machine worker, which drew acclaim from no less than Jean-Luc Godard. Much in the same way that Godard assails modern society through allusions and narrative trickery, Guiraudie has developed a cogent vision around the disconnect between internal desires and the austere qualities of the world at large. Nothing in his movies is what it seems, which means that anything can happen in service of his themes.
Among his contemporaries, he said he found a kinship with the likes of fellow Frenchman Bruno Dumont, in addition to Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Harmony Korine, directors committed to original methods of exploring identity. All of them play with the boundaries between reality and dreams to comment on the real world while transcending its limitations.
So don’t expect him to sell out any time soon. While Guiraudie received plenty of offers after “Stranger By the Lake” came out, he chose to produce an unorthodox screenplay of his own. “I don’t want to enter into the whole logic of making commercial films,” he said. “I wouldn’t even know how to make them.”
Guiraudie’s movies certainly adhere to a logic of their own, and “Staying Vertical” lays out its multifaceted intentions with its title. When presented literally, it refers to the need to stand upright to avoid an attack by wolves, but it also implies a grander kind of psychological resilience. “I think it has a political connotation to it, like a manifesto,” Guiraudie said. “By staying vertical, you are, in essence, retaining your humanity.”
But as always with this confrontational director, there was a more immediate interpretation at hand as well. “It has a sexual connotation, too,” he said. “That’s good as well.”
“Staying Vertical” opens in New York and Los Angeles on January 20. A national rollout with follow in the coming weeks.