We are introduced to the protagonist of Staying Vertical as he wanders. He at first seems somewhat sinister as he roams the hills or drives around and tells random strangers that he wants to put them in the movies, but Leo (Damien Bonnard) is actually in many ways simply an aimless idiot. He falls into experiences and gets caught up in unexpected situations through a shrugging sort of acceptance, rather than because he has some sort of motivation to do one thing or another or actual agenda.
He ends up doing things like fathering a baby – director Alain Guiraudie includes a sequence in which we see a birth in full frontal detail – or sleeping with a man more because he doesn’t know what else to do in each scenario. He can’t say no, can he? Leo is a modern clueless male with almost zero concept of planning ahead, choosing instead to live in the moment. With somewhat disastrous consequences.
In the aforementioned introduction to Leo in which he wanders, he is hiking around the hills in France and meets a shepherd, Marie (India Hair). He tells her of his desire to see a wolf – perhaps the only true proactive thought that he possesses – something that she, due to her profession, is less than impressed by. The metaphorical parallels are clear: Leo is a follower and not a leader; a sheep and not a shepherd or a wolf. But Guiraudie doesn’t actually do a great deal with that idea, beyond mining it for a great deal of absurdist but dry humour, and a meandering plot that holds one’s attention just because you wonder what on earth might happen next.
This drawing you in is also thanks to the way in which he shoots and, in particular, edits – with Editor Jean-Christophe Hym – the film too. With a superb grasp of the advantages of being able to play around with the way an audience experiences the passing of time, Guiraudie frequently startles you with a sudden cut that advances the story in time and often keeps you on edge slightly. He also uses this to hilarious effect in a cut to Leo now sporting a beard, the dark beard elongating his amusing hang-dog expression even further.
Staying Vertical touches on some neat ideas, including concepts surrounding male crises – especially how useless they may be when women leave them – but Guiraudie is generally just skimming along the surface rather than diving deep in. There’s still a lot to enjoy though, and much like his 2013 film, Stranger by the Lake, he has a great deal of fun, it seems, in showing you explicit content that you just don’t generally see in films. In Staying Vertical though, its always with a playful glint his eye.