Staying Vertical is an eccentric rural comedy in which an itinerant screenwriter works out his needs as the father of a baby. Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie, it couldn’t be less elegant than his polished gay cruising thriller Stranger by the Lake (2013), but you have to admire it for its dogged primalism. As in Stranger, sex and death are bedfellows in Staying Vertical. Appetites are for sating, copulation is brisk and harsh, and it’s nothing for an angry farmer to tempt wolves out into the open by laying the appealing morsel of his newborn grandson on the ground up in the hills. The movie has the aura of an Arcadian myth, updated and played as a deadpan queer farce.
Léo (Damien Bonnard), the fiercely anti-charismatic protagonist, is traveling through the sheep-farming region of Lozère in Southern France, ostensibly seeking inspiration for a script. Driving through a village, he stops to ask a pretty youth if he would like to work in movies, but the kid, probably justified in believing Léo is trying to pick him up, rebuffs him. Wandering in the unlovely pastureland, Léo talks with a shepherdess, Marie (India Hair), who’s guarding her father’s flock from the wolves preying on the local sheep.
A hand is placed on a crotch. Marie brings Léo home for dinner with her dad, Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry) and her two fatherless young sons, and then the pair have sex in her room. After they’re done, Guiraudie holds an extended shot on Marie’s exposed vagina, as if—as an openly gay director—he is fascinated by its rawness and power. He may be alluding to The Origin of the World, Gustave Courbet’s painting of a woman’s genitals and lower torso, or perhaps playfully quoting Bruno Dumont’s more faithful re-creation of that work in L’Humanité (1999).
Surprised that he enjoys being with Marie, Léo returns to sleep with her on other occasions, and she tells him she loves him. They live together briefly in Brest after she gives birth to their son. As a gay man, he can’t commit to Marie, but after she moves away with her sons in a haze of post-natal depression, he is forced to take care of the baby at the farm with Jean-Louis’ help.
That he loves the child is evident. Until its narrative starts to unravel two-thirds of the way through, Staying Vertical is at its best demonstrating the conflicts a restless man with a failing career must endure when suddenly charged with single fatherhood. Léo sometimes takes refuge with a healer (Laure Calamy) in a strange rustic haven in the woods. When Léo’s producer shows up seeking the script he has been paying Léo to write, he and the healer become Léo’s surrogate parents, shielding him, temporarily, from the psychosexual wars of adulthood.
Like Dumont, Guiraudie demystifies sex as a visual spectacle by reducing it to the animal, though that’s not to say it can’t take on a spiritual dimension. Léo rejects a pass from Jean-Louis—deeming it inappropriate to sleep with his son’s grandfather—but toward the end of the movie penetrates the sexually frustrated old man who has been taking care of (and has been robbed by) the youth. This act of benedictory euthanasia eases the decrepit geezer into death.
It also harmonizes with Léo’s rebirth as a man of pure nature, a bearded shepherd whose greatest affinity is not with his flock but the predators. The wolves finally gather around him—like the homeless men who had circled, attacked, and stripped him on one of his visits to Brest. It’s tempting to imagine he wants to fuse with these beautiful beasts, or let them tear him apart, as if that might prove the ultimate consummation. The film’s title tells us, however, that Léo must learn to stand as proudly erect as they do.