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.
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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.