A young man about whom we know little other than his name — Leo — arrives in a pretty French village, where, with little finesse and less success, he propositions a muscled sulk of a teenage boy (Basile Meilluerat). Leo, who's played by Damien Bonnard with a kind of predatory befuddlement, has better luck with Marie (India Hair), a shepherdess who calmly takes the sexual initiative. Their son is born nine months later, and Marie, apparently suffering from postpartum depression and angry at her partner's frequent departures to a nearby harbor town, decamps with her two older boys, leaving Leo with the baby he loves but has no idea how to care for.
If you've seen Alain Guiraudie's brutally beautiful 2013 gay reverie, Stranger by the Lake (L'inconnu du lac), you'll know not to expect a heartwarming tale of heroic single-parenthood from his new film, Staying Vertical (Rester vertical). And if you're new to his work, look for multiple layers of storytelling that go way beyond realism and the mostly buried commentary on gender, feminism, and the destruction of an ancient way of rural life. Staying Vertical propels us on a careening ride from eros to thanatos, the creative/destructive urges that lurk beneath a slim veneer of civilization. Truth to tell, civilization is notably absent in this apparent pastoral idyll, which plays host to visceral excursions into polymorphous sexuality you can read as provocation, or candor, or both; either way I lost count of who makes what kind of sexual overtures to whom as Leo makes the village rounds, babe cradled ludicrously in arms.
The baby, who arrives in this world in one of the most graphic scenes of childbirth I've ever seen onscreen, is manifestly a baby. But as we're carried on a wild ride through the rapturous, tortured psyche of Leo and his creator, the baby might also be a stand-in for the script that Leo, a screenwriter, repeatedly, farcically fails to deliver to a mostly unseen producer. More by way of the Brothers Grimm than Disney, Staying Vertical is a dreamy fairy tale in which remaining upright means passing the time with ogre-like local yokels who transform into unlikely father figures, offering a twisted but steadfast community for a stranger on the skids.
As for Leo, he's a mixed bag, at once hapless, menacing and comically unconvincing as a knight riding into town. He is by turns virile, earnest, predatory, and more than a little slippery. As unreliable narrators go, he skews both shifty and so totally adrift in his ungovernable fears and desires that it doesn't take much for him to unravel completely. Stripped naked and flattened, Leo has nowhere to go but up, and though the film's vision of friendship is alarmingly volatile and ambivalent, he manages to get back on his feet by lying down with a lamb and staring down a magnificent wolf. For writer/director Ghiraudie, getting lost is terrifying, but it also bursts with all kinds of fecundity.
Guiraudie's feel for rural landscape is both ecstatic and filled with danger. The rolling green hills with sheep bells, and the town with its twinkling lights, are lovely to look at and listen to; the castle and the leafy forest on the edge of town turn on a dime into places of terror. They're also the setting for the villagers to give unself-conscious expression to their animal natures. The sexuality in Staying Vertical is frankly carnal and provocative enough to produce a highly unorthodox method of assisted suicide involving poison, penetration and Pink Floyd. You do have to keep an open mind, but whether you see Staying Vertical as art or as self-indulgence flirting with pornography, it's a good bet that once he's gotten himself upright, Leo will have his screenplay ready to go.