Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2014) was a film in which erotic fantasies kept edging into the stuff of nightmares; his new film Staying Vertical is governed by the same dream logic, and by a similar penchant for the slippage between fantasy and reality, fantasy and terror. It’s too scattershot to be really great, I think, and it feels like a step backward for Guiraudie. But its surprises are so unexpected and its plot so unpredictable that it’s never uninteresting. It’s enough to make you wish that Guiraudie had the discipline to do more careful work—or perhaps the ballsiness to be less careful.
Staying Vertical is perhaps best described as a dramatization of male fears and desires, both conscious or unconscious: the desire to live in community with women versus the latent wish to explore sex with other men, the biological imperative toward procreation in opposition with the dread of being saddled with children, the pressures of work and familial responsibility, anxieties about public embarrassment and persecution by the law. The film’s main character, Leo, is a professional screenwriter who drifts through the various scenarios of the film like the passive hero of a picaresque novel, wandering into situation after situation seemingly at random. Things keep happening to him; he falls into a domestic arrangement with a sheep farmer and her children until she flees, leaving him to care for their newborn son. Any effort to assert his independence (especially his attempts to explore his recurring attraction to men) causes catastrophic fallout. As in a dream, Leo’s enemies, past transgressions and failures pursue him as doggedly and mysteriously as phantoms. What looks to be a straightforward and realistic drama is a psychological allegory about the pursuit of pleasure clashing with social prohibition.
It’s exciting to see a filmmaker so willing to dispense with the conventions of realism, and so willing to explore taboo subject matter, especially those surrounding sex and relationality. At the same time Guiraudie’s films seem to suffer from too much restraint: considering that they explore the push-pull of the unconscious, they ought to be more bonkers. Somewhat like his characters, he’s held back by an unwillingness to go too far: the desire to explore something more dangerous is there but the fear of prohibition is more powerful. I look forward to a future Guiraudie film in which he gives himself the permission to go crazy that his characters can’t give themselves.