Staying Vertical is a film that cannot fulfill its own potential because it is unable to escape writer-director Alain Guiraudie’s cult of his own personality. The film, at its best, provokes the viewer with shock cuts to graphic images, playfully evokes cinematic history and allegorically assaults France’s conservative cultural norms of masculinity and heterosexuality. But it accomplishes all of this while reveling in its auteur’s own virtuosity. If only Staying Vertical could have advanced beyond self-flattery, it would have been a delightful absurdist film—the sort usually called “hallucinatory”—in the vein of Holy Motors and Songs from the Second Floor.

The film follows the peregrinations of Léo (Damien Bonnard), a filmmaker stultified by writer’s block. He aimlessly drives and walks the hills of southern France, looking for inspiration. When put in the context of Guiraudie’s own biography—his previous film, Stranger by the Lake, his first breakout hit, made him famous and was surely difficult to follow—this plot summary sounds like . But Guiraudie is not Fellini. This mimicry of Fellini is the first indication that perhaps this film is more about Guiraudie’s own self-conceptions of his grandeur than it is Léo or the other characters.

On his travels, Léo encounters four figures—a young man, Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), a cranky elderly man, Marcel (Christian Bouillette), a shepherdess, Marie (India Hair), and her father, Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiery), in that order. Each encounter oozes with sexual tension and in fact, Léo and Marie have an amorous tryst. He stays at her farm and the two have a child.

In these early sequences, Guiraudie regularly employs shock cuts to genitalia and to a close-up on Marie’s childbirth. Utilized in a different way, these cuts could have startled or incited the viewer. Instead, they play as meant-to-instigate-contrivances; they are amateurish, desperate attempts to make the film seem edgy. They are not actually edgy, nor is the film.

The ensuing plot centers on Léo, who wants to remain a wandering artist-in-search-of-art, and his newborn baby, who gives him a very worthy reason to stay in one place. Marie abandons them both, but Léo remains at the sheep farm with Jean-Louis. The farm is afflicted by wolves who prey on the flock. Léo also remains infatuated with Yoan, who he tries to recruit to star in his still-unwritten film. Yoan lives with Marcel, so Léo stays in contact with all of the original male encounters. The sexual energy between Léo and each of those three has not dissipated, but remains unfulfilled.

Staying Vertical’s climax involves three key scenes. First, a destitute Léo, baby in hand, is attacked by a horde of homeless men, who strip him of his clothes before he is rescued by Yoan and Jean-Louis. The second scene is the most extreme and features Léo aiding Marcel in an assisted suicide; Léo sodomizes Marcel to death. The third scene is the film’s closing shot: it takes place years later on Jean-Louis’ farm. Following the sodomized euthanasia incident, Léo is disgraced, embarrassed and has the baby taken from his custody. He now tends the sheep and lives in the barn with them. One night, he hears the feared wolves—who he has not yet seen but has yearned to encounter—howling and goes in pursuit of them, carrying a lamb in the same pose as he did his baby. He is followed by Jean-Louis. They find and are then surrounded by a pack of wolves. And on this clumsy, telegraphed-from-the-film’s-first-moments metaphor, Staying Vertical ends.

The allegory here is clear: French society isolates “strange”—i.e., queer—men like Léo, Marcel and Jean-Louis (who makes sexual advances on Léo) to the margins. They are then forced to live in fear of predation. They are the sheep and society is the wolf pack. But this is all done so gracelessly and overtly as to render it banal rather than meaningful. Exacerbating the ungainliness of developing the wolf allegory are the constant ineffective film-making flourishes that are supposed to make the viewer marvel at Guiraudie’s prowess.

It is too much. Which is a shame, because the elements of a brilliant film are apparent throughout Staying Vertical. The cinematography, in particular, is sensational and the composition of many of the shots emphasizes Guiraudie’s talent as a director. The fluency with which the film conjures images from other films is exciting until overdone with the parallels to . The very idea that a film could include a scene as absurd as a man euthanizing another man via anal sex is equal parts hilarious and thrilling. Unfortunately, the viewer is likely to miss many of these promising elements because Guiraudie spends so much of the film insistently leaping in front of the camera to wink at his own cleverness.

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