×

Cannes Film Review: ‘Bird People’

This clinically observed two-hander reveals itself as an unlikely Cinderella story.

With:
Josh Charles, Anais Demoustier, Roschdy Zem, Camelia Jordana, Geoffrey Cantor, Clark Johnson, Taklyt Vongdara, Radha Mitchell. Voice: Mathieu Amalric. (French, English, Japanese dialogue)

Set in the most romantic city on earth yet almost entirely confined to a Hilton hotel adjacent to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, Pascale Ferran’s “Bird People” reveals itself as an unlikely Cinderella story around its magical midway point. Until then, the location might as well be Topeka, Kansas, considering what minimal advantage this modern-day fairy tale takes of its environs, delivering instead an almost clinical observation of the frequent-flyer life through the eyes of an American businessman and the bird-brained French maid with whom he seems destined to fall in love. After Cannes, Ferran’s curious follow-up to “Lady Chatterley” should find a comfortable nest with fests.

At first, or at least until the film’s twist, the fanciful title seems to refer to those folks who spend their lives in the air. Gary Newman (“The Good Wife’s” Josh Charles) is just such a traveler, touching down in Paris for 24 hours to confab with his Silicon Valley-based company’s French business partners before jetting off to Dubai for more meetings. But something compels Gary to skip his flight, and the next morning, he quits his job, calls his lawyer and writes his wife an ominous e-mail — the subject: “Need to speak to you.”

This is no ordinary midlife crisis, though sadly, it’s not a particularly extraordinary one, either. Gary, like nearly all the people observed in the film, appears to be a relatively average individual apart from the fact that certain aspects of his life warrant narration, delivered “Jules and Jim”-style by Mathieu Amalric. In detached, almost documentary-like detail, the film observes first his routine (at one point, mid-meeting, he lets his gaze drift out the window to contemplate the passing planes) and then the process by which he extracts himself from professional and personal obligations, culminating in a tedious all-night video-conference session with his wife (Radha Mitchell), in which his interest once again seeks the window.

Popular on Variety

Elsewhere in the hotel, soft-spoken Audrey (mousy Anais Demoustier) works as a maid, though she’s different from the other hotel staff. Whereas most of her co-workers are foreigners, she’s white. And instead of taking the job out of necessity, she’s doing it to keep busy until she decides on the next step, drifting along somewhere between daydreaming and depression in the meantime.

With keen interest, the film concentrates on behavior that most would consider mundane, starting with Audrey’s daily commute and ending back in her tiny suburban apartment as she smokes a cigarette, a silent voyeur to the neighbors living in the building opposite hers. On one hand, this character seems to share the director’s sense of curiosity about the secret lives of strangers, though if she (Ferran) is correct, the majority of humans are a lot less interesting than you might think. On the train, for example, the film eavesdrops on the thoughts of various passengers, though not a one dreams of anything more interesting than his mortgage — except Audrey, who spots a bird on the platform.

Where the film goes is both unexpected and necessary, since however grounded and relatable these thinly detailed characters might be, the movie doesn’t actually seem to be going anywhere. That’s partly because Ferran and co-writer Guillaume Breaud present Gary and Audrey’s stories back-to-back rather than interweaving them (which might have amplified the duo’s romantic potential), but also because the film only reluctantly connects their two stories at all.

And then, all of a sudden, things veer into Disney-movie territory, though no one would confuse Ferran’s execution for anything the Mouse House produces. Instead of making thing cozy and crowdpleasing, she accentuates the sense of discomfort experienced by people in this strange transitional zone: adjacent to the airport, always coming and going, but seldom actually changing. “Bird People” shows these spaces at a slight distance, harshly lit and captured with the too-sharp clarity of today’s digital cameras, as Ferran’s strangely artless sense of mise-en-scene accentuates the emptiness.

Without giving away the surprise, the movie calls for some clever wrangling and visual effects work toward the end. The surrealism stands in stark contrast with the stripped-down naturalism that has come before, and it is in this stretch that the film finally leaves terra firma and takes flight. It’s deliciously risky, though Ferran falls far short of Icarus’ folly, soaring low and returning to earth having risked too little.

Cannes Film Review: 'Bird People'

Reviewed at L'Etoile, Paris, May 5, 2014. (In Cannes Film Festival  Un Certain Regard.) Running time: 128 MIN.

Production: An Archipel 35 presentation and production, in association with France 2 Cinema, Titre et Structure Prod., with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus, France Televisions, CNC, with the support of Region Ile-de-France, in association with Cofinova 8. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Denis Freyd.

Crew: Directed by Pascale Ferran. Screenplay, Ferran, Guillaume Breaud. Camera (color, HD), Julien Hirsch; editor, Mathilde Muyard; music, Beatrice Thiriet; production designer, Thierry Francois; costume designer, Anais Romand; sound, Jean-Pierre Laforce;  visual effects supervisor, Geoffrey Niquet; visual effects, Buf Compagnie; bird trainers, Celine Reding, Guillaume Collin; assistant director, Simon Rooke, Guillaume Plumejeau; casting, Richard Rousseau, Sarah Teper, Avy Kaufman, Claire Andrieu.

With: Josh Charles, Anais Demoustier, Roschdy Zem, Camelia Jordana, Geoffrey Cantor, Clark Johnson, Taklyt Vongdara, Radha Mitchell. Voice: Mathieu Amalric. (French, English, Japanese dialogue)

More Film

  • The Irishman

    'The Irishman' Nabs 17.1 Million U.S. Viewers on Netflix in First Five Days, per Nielsen

    Martin Scorsese’s mafia saga “The Irishman” was watched by 17.1 million unique Netflix viewers in the U.S. in the first five days of its streaming release, according to Nielsen estimates. By comparison, Sandra Bullock-starrer “Bird Box” scored nearly 26 million U.S. viewers in its first seven days of availability (Dec. 21-27, 2018) on Netflix, according [...]

  • De-aging Robert De Niro For Scorsese's

    'The Irishman': A Closer Look at the De-Aging of De Niro in Scorsese's Mob Epic

    Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” hits Netflix today and it stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who meets Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sanning several decades, the film follows Sheeran as he gets involved in the greatest unsolved mob mystery – the disappearance of union boss Jimmy [...]

  • David Tennant'Good Omens' TV show premiere,

    Intl. TV Newswire: HBO in Denmark, Tennant in a Balloon, Eccho Rights in Love

    In this week’s jam-packed International TV Newswire, Variety catches you up on HBO’s first Danish original series “Kamikaze,” the first deal between ViacomCBS-owned broadcasters since the merger, David Tennant’s upcoming 80-day global circumnavigation, an un-scripted deal between Japan’s Nippon TV and the U.K.’s The Story Lab. Also on the mix: Eccho Rights’ newest global pickup from Sweden, [...]

  • Sin Señas Particulares

    Alpha Violet Acquires Fernanda Valadez’s Sundance-Selected ‘Identifying Features’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES  — Paris-based Alpha Violet  has acquired international rights to Fernanda Valadez’s feature debut, “Identifying Features,” which world premieres in World Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Announced this week, the Sundance selection comes on top of a Films in Progress Prize at this September’s San Sebastian Festival. Studying at Mexico’s Centro [...]

  • Days of Christmas

    Pau Freixas on Netflix Spanish Miniseries ‘Days of Christmas’

    BARCELONA – A Netflix original produced by Spain’s Filmax, “Days of Christmas” marks the new series of Pau Freixas, one of the highest-profile creators on Spain’s vibrant drama series scene. A three-part miniseries, “Days” will be made available worldwide by Netflix on Dec. 6. The story takes place over three different Christmas days, the first [...]

  • Writers-Room-Panel

    Ventana Sur: Argentine Directors on Benefit of Writers’ Room (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — Ventana Sur hosted two of the country’s leading screenwriters to relay the benefits of utilizing a writers’ room while conceptualizing fiction projects, delivered to a packed auditorium on Tuesday afternoon as part of the Fiction Factory series held at the UCA Campus in Puerto Madero. Director Daniel Burman, known for films such [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content