BY STEVE ERICKSON | Observers as different as Edmund White and Gaspar Noé have noted that France seems to have little use for America’s style of identity politics. The characters of gay director Alain Guiraudie’s “The King of Escape” and his new film “Staying Vertical” are too busy enjoying a pansexual utopia where almost every man is queer to worry about same-sex marriage or civil rights laws.
Guiraudie made a breakthrough in 2013 with “Stranger by the Lake,” a serial killer thriller that, to my eyes, resembled William Friedkin’s “Cruising” remade from a gay perspective but with most of the homophobia and puritanism left in. I was much more excited that in the wake of the modest success of “Stranger by the Lake,” “The King of Escape,” originally made in 2009, got a brief release in New York. “Staying Vertical” takes us back to its universe, but with weaker results.
In the south of France, filmmaker Leo (Damien Bonnard) searches for images of wolves. He meets a shepherd, Marie (India Hair), who hates the animals and spends her days with rifle in hand, guarding her flock from them. The two fall in love and begin having sex. Nine months later, Marie gives birth to a baby (in an extremely explicit scene). She immediately succumbs to post-partum depression and abandons the baby to Leo’s care. He becomes distracted from his work by various complications, many of them sexual.
Leo seems to be bisexual from the very first scene of “Staying Vertical,” in which he tries to pick up a young man standing by the road. An old man scares him away. From there, he goes on to a heterosexual relationship, but he’s constantly pursued by gay or bi men and often gives in. Everyone’s sexuality seems beyond labels and up for grabs. One might think that the old man sitting by the road is a cranky, homophobic codger, especially given the way he throws around the word “faggot” (as well as the N word), but he too turns out to be gay. The young man in the first scene is not the old man’s son, but appears to be his partner, despite the nasty way they treat each other. Marie’s father, Jean-Louis (Raphael Thiéry), also makes a move on Leo.
One problem with this sense of backwoods France as a queer playground is that it excludes women, which wasn’t the case in “The King of Escape.” There, the protagonist slept with everyone from old men to teenage girls. Here, the main female character tosses aside her baby and gets ejected from the story. From that point on, “Staying Vertical” takes place in an almost entirely masculine universe. The same was true of “Stranger by the Lake,” but the absence of women made more sense there, since it took place at a gay male cruising ground.
Guiraudie creates a fairy tale atmosphere out of this playful sexuality, the presence of animals, and the music of Pink Floyd (whom the old man loves). But the real world keeps intruding. In “The King of Escape,” the protagonist and his teenage lover were sent on the run by cops. In “Staying Vertical,” Leo comes to realize that the wolves he romanticizes are a genuine threat to the placid landscape he has come to love. There are hints of menace sprinkled throughout the film, but they’re easy to ignore amidst genuine handjobs Guiraudie included, among other explicit sex.
Only in the final scene do we realize that the title doesn’t refer to erections. Also, only in the end does the film establish its own mood: a mixture of the hope of “The King of Escape” and the danger of “Stranger by the Lake.”
STAYING VERTICAL | Directed by Alain Guiraudie | Strand Releasing | In French with English subtitles | Opens Jan. 20 | Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. 144 W. 65th St.; filmlinc.org | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St.; ifccenter.com