With understated visual flair and sensual attentiveness, Staying Vertical is a bizarre and enthralling work from writer/director Alain Guiraurdie. Like Stranger by the Lake before it, Guiraudie explicitly depicts sex but to more bizarre effect, and with less aim to titilate. Get ready for a host of meditations and provocations on sexuality and, oh you know, human existence in a thoroughly intellectual, but unpretentious piece of auteur filmmaking.
Screenwriter Léo (Damien Bonnard, a perfect blank canvas for the film) meets lonely shepherdess Marie (India Hair) while hiking in the French countryside. Their sudden tryst is complicated by his half-in intentions, not to mention Marie’s father and two May-December locals with which Léo entwines himself in the background.
While shocking imagery (like a live childbirth presented in unflinching close-up) bursts in, the most disorienting thing about is how the more surreal elements are weaved into the film unceremoniously. Daringly, a medicine woman in the woods diagnosing Léo via peapod vines is treated with the same matter-of-factness as Léo and Marie’s relationship struggles. Pink Floyd prog-rock blares in as elementally as the ominous howl of encroaching wolves. In Guiraudie’s hands, the natural is as bizarre as any of the outlandishness and vice versa.
The title itself pulls its many underlying themes into one narrative thread, each recalling a physical action for a fundamentally physical film. An upright posture to exhibit dominance over the animal kingdom, a masculine persona to not give off a homosexual vibe, *ahem* maintaining tumescence. The film is fascinated with our evolution and lack thereof. On one hand our instincts are base level acts are at the primalcy of beasts, yet we as humans experience empathy, patience, and grace. Or do we?
That very fluidity of idea is present throughout the film, from its vision of male sexuality to its ideas on the limitations and boundlessness of our human compassion. Everything is at once placeable but slippery, not easily defined or reduced. A first person view from inside a speeding car tunnels through the birth canal of the countryside, swerving around corners and promising a jump scare that never comes. While the film’s balance of ellusivity and omniscience becomes strained in the second hour, it’s one relentlessly fascinating and physical experience.
Its greatest provocation to the audience is how it volleys our ideas between these two polar ends, both simply to keep up with the film’s sometimes divergent ideas and their own worldview. What keeps Vertical from becoming a severe exercise or audience punisher is Guiraudie’s light but assured touch, as if the director is winking “Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m probably not.” Its blasé presentation of what it aims to shock you with shows that playful dark humor with utmost confidence.