This Friday two new films shot in the south of France by prominent auteurs will open in Chicago: Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical (which plays for a week at the Film Center) and Christophe Honoré’s Metamorphoses (which plays for a week at Facets). In addition to featuring similar geography, both films exhibit a sense of narrative liberty, shifting shape in a manner that befits the characters’ shifting lives. Staying Vertical is a dream narrative wherein characters change suddenly and frequently, while Metamorphoses, a modern-dress adaptation of about a dozen tales by Ovid, is very much about the joy of storytelling, containing playful digressions and tales within tales. It’s also worth noting that both films depict sexual activity that society deems taboo, yet the way that Staying Vertical and Metamorphoses depicts such activity is forthright, at times even positive, conveying an air of pansexual freedom that complements the freedom of the storytelling.
I’m still getting a handle on Guiraudie, whose supremely odd, sexually explicit films (The King of Escape, Stranger by the Lake) evoke dreams but never state that they’re the dream of any one character. They exhibit an exact sense of place—Guiraudie tends to set them in rural southern France, which is where he’s from, and they’re filled with workaday detail. His soundtracks are sparse and precise, locking you into the sounds his characters focus on, and his use of long takes give you a vivid sense of the slow pace at which his characters work and loiter. Yet there’s often something at odds with the realist aesthetic. Characters randomly express sexual desire for each other or speak frankly with strangers about private concerns. Staying Vertical takes place during a few years but feels like it transpires across a few days, so slippery is the film’s sense of time.
When Vertical begins, a man who appears to be in his late 30s is driving through southern France. He stops for a walk in the countryside and meets a younger woman tending sheep. They make conversation and within moments they’re passionately kissing. She invites him back to her father’s house for dinner; he ends up staying the night and he and the shepherdess have sex.
Only later do we learn that the man’s name is Léo and that he’s a screenwriter from Brest. Guiraudie never divulges what caused Léo to drive into the country—or, later, what makes him want to live there with the shepherdess, Marie—apart from a general sense of writer’s block and discomfort with his life in the city. Léo also expresses fascination about a young man who lives near Marie’s farm, but Guiraudie leaves it ambiguous as to whether Léo’s interested in the young man sexually. Just as we know next to nothing about the character’s past, his sexual orientation is also a mystery—it’s as though his identity is taking shape along with the film. (Readers who haven’t yet seen Staying Vertical may want to skip the next paragraph—spoilers follow.)
Léo has a baby with Marie, but the couple breaks up soon after he’s born. She charges Léo with raising the child, so he goes back to her father’s house and attempts to raise the child there. (The father, Jean-Louis, expresses sexual desire for Léo a couple times, but Léo rejects him on each occasion.) He strikes up a friendship with an ailing old man who lives with Yoan, the young man whom Léo desires, and he stalls a movie director about how his script is coming along. Léo does leave the small town at one point, but he has no idea of where to go; lacking money, he winds up destitute back in Brest. When a group of hobos strip Léo of his clothes and final belongings, Jean-Louis and Yoan randomly appear and take him back to the country. They deposit him with the ailing man, Marcel, who requests Léo’s assistance with committing suicide. Léo provides him with poison, then, at the old man’s request, sodomizes him while he’s dying. The local gendarmes find Léo with Marcel’s corpse, then inform social services, who deliver the infant back to Marie. Léo then returns to the farm to work with Jean-Louis; in the final scene, the two men find themselves on a lovely hillside, surrounded by ravenous wolves. Guiraudie ends the film before revealing whether the animals attack.
I couldn’t tell you what this all means, but then I don’t know if I’m supposed to. Guiraudie has said in interviews that the biggest influences on Staying Vertical were Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, two filmmakers who like to leave things unexplained and unexplainable. And like Buñuel and Lynch, Guiraudie likes to draw attention to small, seemingly random details—such as the tags on Marie’s sheep’s ears or Marcel’s fondness for prog rock—to suggest a secret order to things. At the same time, the film is eerily straightforward in its presentation of events, the unassuming tone at times suggesting a folktale. It’s clear that Guiraudie is fascinated by erotic desire and its attending anxieties (settling down, raising children), feelings we tend to experience strongly in dreams. Staying Vertical suggests that these feelings are strong enough to make people change their lives on a whim or turn strangers into intimates—it’s like a surrealist variation on the shape-shifting dramas by another renowned French director, André Téchiné (Hotel des Ameriques, My Favorite Season, Changing Times).
Some of Christophe Honoré’s films show an affinity with Téchiné as well. Consider the narrative of his 2007 rom-com Love Songs, which feels structurally like a Téchiné film: The main character (Louis Garrel) begins the film in a polyamorous relationship with two women and ends the film in love with another man, the change feeling like an organic evolution based on how he engages with the world. Honoré’s characters change lovers frequently and sometimes change their sexual orientation as well. The filmmaker tends to keep things light (Dans Paris, Love Songs, and Beloved all feature musical numbers), so the characters’ identities seem to shift like the breeze. It’s only after you finish one of Honoré’s movies that you realize how much the characters have evolved.
In Metamorphoses, the transformative power of sexual desire is literal. The film opens with a quote from Ovid—”My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies”—then goes on to show exactly what that looks like. In the mix of stories that make up the film, Honoré adapts tales about Tiresias (who experiences life as both a man and a woman), Io (who gets transformed into a cow), Hermaphrodite (a man whose body fuses with a woman’s), and Baucis and Philemon (a married couple who becomes two intertwining trees). Performed in contemporary settings, Metamorphoses asks viewers to ponder whether the desires that power Greek myths are still part of human experience. Honoré doesn’t draw any conclusions himself, maintaining an interesting frisson between his source material and the contemporary settings.
The style here feels heavier than in other Honoré films. There’s a gravitas to the images and the selective sound design (it actually feels closer in tone to Guiraudie’s work than to Honoré’s), which the director uses to convey the eternal nature of the stories. Stones, rivers, and meadows are infused with a classical beauty, and fittingly there’s often classical music on the soundtrack. Honoré’s use of beauty creates a sense of distance from the more shocking content of Metamorphoses, such as an episode in which the god Bacchus compels three young women to obey his will, first with a magic spell, then by forcing them at gunpoint. Honoré presents the scene with the same forthright, unassuming tone with which he presents everything else in the film, miracles and establishing shots alike. How is one supposed to read this scene? As a myth about gods and mortals or as an offensive rape fantasy? Like Guiraudie, Honoré has a knack for provoking viewers to examine their prejudices.