Between Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist and Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical, 2017 is shaping up to be a banner year for movies about the picaresque sexual misadventures of beautiful European men. Where Guiraudie’s film wrote large the fears and fantasies of a bi-curious French writer, Rodrigues’ film concerns a gay ornithologist (played by French actor Paul Hamy) who experiences a series of bizarre encounters while on a scouting expedition in the forests of Portugal. After his kayak is destroyed by rapids he is rescued, or more accurately kidnapped, by a pair of giggling Chinese lesbians; he has a violent and erotic rendezvous with a deaf-mute shepherd; he runs afoul of a band of brilliantly costumed marauders; he survives an accidental attack by a trio of bare-breasted female hunters. He’s repeatedly visited by two birds, an owl and a dove--are they supernatural agents, or is he merely suffering from hallucinations? Then, in the film’s final scenes, he undergoes a mysterious transfiguration: after purging himself of his ID and other possessions, and having singed off his fingerprints, he is reborn as Saint Anthony of Padua (!).
It’s difficult to say exactly what The Ornithologist is trying to be: it’s a somewhat uneven mix of religious allegory, surreal adventure tale, and existential drama in which the title character wanders blankly from one episode to the next. The final shots suggest an interpretation of the film as a parable about gay self-acceptance—though Rodrigues does little to set this up earlier. If none of this really holds together, it’s at least compellingly staged and photographed, and Hamy is never unpleasant to watch. With his crystal blue eyes and full lips, he resembles a slightly leaner and more delicately featured Tom Hardy. Connoisseurs of rare birds, picturesque landscapes and hunky men can at least expect to have their interest held by what its otherwise a failed experiment.