Léo (Damien Bonnard), the hero of Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical is a lost man. When we first meet him he is driving aimlessly seemingly looking for purpose. He thinks he finds it when he discovers the beautiful young Yoan (Basile Meilleurat) on a country road, and since he's a screenwriter, offers to turn him into a movie star. When the young man refuses him, Léo keeps driving and meets Marie (India Hair) a shepherdess with whom he becomes romantically involved. But Léo is trying to escape something intangible, he’s lost his inspiration and with a looming deadline upon him will do anything but sit down and write. Combining surrealism with existentialism, the film explores themes Guiraudie is more than familiar with, but Staying Vertical might be his most playful film to date. I spoke to the director about writing, his obsession with nature and making queer art.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen any film or artwork that has captured the concept of procrastinating so well…
You mean laziness? (Laughs)
You’ve talked about writing novels that you never publish, so I wondered if that had to do with the main character procrastinating.
In fact I finally have my novel that will be published! It will be translated into English and published in the US too. I wanted to make movies as early as I can remember, when I was young I realized it was more complicated than it seemed, so I started writing novels. Turns out my novels weren’t very good, so ultimately what happened is I recycled my novels into screenplays. There’s a wonderful expression in French that says “to be afraid of the blank page”, it would be the same as writer’s block in English, and that’s something I’ve never had. When I sit down to write and nothing comes, I do something else.
I had severe anxiety watching the film because I had a deadline coming up. I wondered why Léo wasn’t writing everything that was happening to him since it would make a great screenplay. Can you talk about what inspired you to write a movie about writing?
Even though I deal with writing in the film, I don’t think it’s a film about that. In a sense the film almost writes itself as Léo goes on his voyage. I think the film is much simpler, it’s about wandering, he’s wandering emotionally and geographically. Even though I don’t have writer’s block I wondered what I would do if it happened to me.
Can you talk about your relationship with nature. Every time nature shows up in your films, it’s kinda scary, there’s even wolves in this one!
(Laughs) I’m fascinated by nature, but I’m also fearful of it. I wanted to explore nature as being negative and positive. I also wanted to play with the idea of the other, I’m fascinated by wide open spaces in nature, when people see the wide desert they can be both fascinated and scared by it. In this film you have many others; the wolves, the baby.
Historically it’s been women in films who are doomed to repeating the same patterns all the time. In your film it’s men who do this, we see the old guy listening to music bitter and alone, and we wonder if Léo will become him at some point. Can you comment on this?
It’s a film that plays a lot with reversals of female and male roles. Gender theory hovers over this film, but it also has a strong existential current too. I present men at all ages, from babies to old men, and we see the different kinds of kinships and relationships that exist and change over time. Maybe there’s a simpler answer which is: I’m a man so I made a film about a man (laughs).
In your last two films there’s a juxtaposition of two extremes on how queer men live, in Stranger by the Lake we see gay men having fun and sex all the time, and in Staying Vertical we see how gay marriage could lead to heteronormative behavior and frustration. Can you talk about the contrast between both films?
Stranger by the Lake was what we would consider a gay film because it portrayed a homosexual world, that makes it different form this film because I wanted this one to move away from that. In this one we see straight relationships as well, so I didn’t want it to be identified as a gay film only. Also because we have a relationship between two men, it doesn’t mean you’re homosexual, I wanted to move away from those barriers, I wanted to make them a little more vague. I want to clarify that in Stranger by the Lake I was dealing with a very specific homosexual world at a very specific time, not the homosexual world in general.
Staying Vertical reminded me of Pasolini’s Teorema, was it an influence at all?
Maybe on an unconscious level. I have great admiration for who he was and his ideas, but I didn’t like Teorema so that wasn’t an influence.
We see constant repetition in the film, can you talk about defining the pace of your films? In this one you trick us into thinking we know what’s coming and then you take a different turn, are you influenced by the editing of horror films?
I love genre film, I really like George Romero and I think some scenes in the film have a flavor of Romero. In terms of repetition, it’s about two things: it’s a great dramatic tool so I like using it, but on a simpler level repetition is a part of life. What was that Bill Murray film? Groundhog Day. It’s the same thing (laughs)
It’s coming to Broadway as a musical soon.
No! We’re turning everything into musicals.
Can you talk about why you show bodies that aren’t usually thought of as erotic in films? Why do you think cinema stays away from showing older people interested in sex for instance?
This is a problem because we have this stereotypical idea that sensuality and sexuality cease to exist after a certain age. I don’t know why that is, but it’s true that older people disappear from that world. On my first trip to the US in 2000 I was struck by how true that was here, you need to look a certain way and be a certain age, that way of thinking is increasing in Europe now as well. I guess we want to be young forever, this is an ideal we keep and the older body doesn’t conform to that. Filmmakers tend to film things that reflect their own desires, I don’t think there are many gay filmmakers who are interested in older bodies.
Staying Vertical opens in theaters today.