Léo (Damien Bonnard), the central character in “Staying Vertical,” is a tall, curly-haired drifter with a hawk-nosed reptilian stare — he looks like a doleful French version of Kramer from “Seinfeld.” Early on, he hooks up with Marie (India Hair), a single mother who is working as a shepherd on her father’s farm, and before it’s even clear that the two are going to be a couple, they’ve collaborated on having a baby. Actually, they’re not a couple: Marie splits without an explanation (other than a vague aura of post-natal blues), leaving the infant for Léo to care for. Has there ever been a less equipped father in the history of movies? Léo doesn’t have a job — he’s writing a screenplay, or says that he is — and he tends to leave the baby alone in cars, and has a way of cradling him like a foreign object; he seems no more connected to the kid than if it were a baby mongoose. Yet this is somehow meant to be the driving relationship in the film. Is it any wonder that “Staying Vertical” has a little trouble engaging our sympathies?
Alain Guiraudie, the writer and director of “Staying Vertical,” was last at Cannes with “Stranger by the Lake,” which made a splash three years ago, and deserved to. It was a homicide thriller set at a woodsy gay cruising spot next to a rocky pastoral lake beach, and Guiraudie caught the anthropology of the cruising culture — and the physical setting — with so much intricacy and detail that the movie had a sinister Hitchcockian finesse. Every moment unfolded with perilous logic. But the Guiraudie of “Stranger by the Lake” — the cool humanist craftsman — is scarcely in evidence in “Staying Vertical,” a film that defies common sense in a way that audiences will not take kindly to. The movie tries to pass off its crazier conceits as though they were something out of an urban fairy tale. Léo, holding his baby, is descended upon by an army of homeless men — a scene that exists mostly because Guiraudie wanted to stage it like a real-life zombie attack. Léo winds up destitute himself, though a producer offers him cash if only he’ll finish his script. With a baby to care for, you’d think that would be motivation enough, but no.
Damien Bonnard, at least in this role, is not an appealing actor. He mopes and gawks and never smiles and, whatever the situation, reacts with a disaffected semi-sneer that could generously be called “minimal.” And the technical bravura that Guiraudie summoned in “Stranger” — the subtle manipulation of light, weather, shot language, and temporal cunning — now falls by the wayside in a story that lurches from episode to disconnected episode. There’s a homoerotic theme in this movie as well: Léo is coveted by Marie’s lumpish father (Raphaël Thiéry), and he forms an attachment to a crotchety old man (Christian Bouillette) who sits around his country hovel making anti-gay slurs as he spins Pink Floyd albums at top volume. But the old codger, it’s clear, protests too much, and Léo ultimately sleeps with him — in an explicit sex scene that turns into a benediction. This act of kindness more or less emerges out of nowhere, but then, that’s true of nearly everything that happens in “Staying Vertical.”