Alain Guiraudie runs the gamut from cradle to grave in Staying Vertical, his darkly funny story of a writer's block-afflicted screenwriter who flees with his advance and battles wolves, poverty and solo parenthood in rural France.
The provocative film has a lot to say about sex, masculinity, life on the land and homelessness; and the director of Stranger By The Lake naturally offers a lot to see as well, with choice takeaways including a live birth (shot in wincing close-up), and an unforgettable moment of assisted suicide that builds to a kinky crescendo.
SBS caught up with Guiraudie at the Cannes Film Festival, where Staying Vertical competed for the 2016 Palme d’Or (it was dubbed 'Stranger by the minute' by the wags of film Twitter). He laughed cheekily at the mention of Australia, given his script includes a very specific type of Australian racism… for which the Melbourne International Film Festival is inadvertently responsible
Guiraudie explained the curious link that goes back to when he was heading to MIFF as a festival guest back in 2013. Stranger By The Lake was in the program that year, and the long flight between Dubai and Melbourne gave him ample opportunity to work through a few pages of a new script. When he needed some inflammatory rhetoric to put in the mouth of a raging homophobe-slash-racist character, he drew inspiration from his destination, and gave the crusty nutter some choice invectives, which stood out for your correspondent when she was watching it in the south of France.
In a fitting bookend, Staying Vertical will have its Australian premiere at this year’s MIFF.
How did you go from Stranger By The Lake to this film?
For me it was important to come back to a very different kind of film from Stranger By The Lake. Stranger takes place in one location but I wanted something that takes place on the road on many locations, in many different situations.
Your lead character Leo has a nasty case of writer's block. Was that based on personal experience – perhaps the pressure of following up on Stranger?
Well, yes in fact I was working on another project. I was supposed to be writing the script for something else and I just thought I would put it to one side and start another project, just working very calmly, not putting any pressure on myself, in a very disconnected way.
There’s a fairy tale element to the way you tackle sex, and life, and death. All the big things. Why did you choose to tell the story this way?
I wanted to deal with questions that were existential, that were dealt with in very banal ways. As a part of daily life. I wanted the banal and also the mythological to go into that. I wanted to do something very different from Stranger. In the Stranger, I focussed very greatly on male genitals, and I wanted to look at the female genitals as well. I wanted to really look at things that scared me. Freud called the female genitals ‘the dark continent’, and this was about that – exploring about and gazing at that which we don’t usually look at, which scares us. Of course with the birth scene, that’s where we’re all from and I wanted to go and have a look at where I come from.
At the same time, I wanted to deal with ‘the Wolf’. Like my main character Leo, wolves are something that fascinate me, that interest me. They’re present in fables and fairy tales, in folk mythology and at the same time, they have that element and they are a very real threat to sheep herders and it’s a very huge problem among those people. I wanted to deal with that. As well, there’s an expression in French which is ‘to see the wolf’, and you say have a young girl, you can say ‘she has seen the wolf’ and it can refer to the male genitals, but in most situations it means she has had her first sexual experience.
Actually, I wasn’t necessarily aware of all of those aspects when I was making the film! They’re often things you realise when you’re shooting the film or in post-production.
"In the Stranger, I focussed very greatly on male genitals, and I wanted to look at the female genitals as well. I wanted to really look at things that scared me."
There’s a strong theme of fatherhood and a look at father figures. Where does that come from, for you?
It was very important for me, those themes, I don’t have children myself, but I really get a kick out of seeing my friend’s children and having them around me. So I sometimes think, ‘Yeah it would be nice if I had children myself’. Of course having children means you’re leaving traces, it’s a way of achieving immortality. The question of children is something that touches on many aspects – debates that are working in our society at the moment, the question of single parenthood, gay parenthood, assisted procreation. I liked very much the idea of dealing with those very real sociological issues but in a very mythological, fairy tale light.
Speaking of very real sociological issues, there’s quite a confronting treatment of homelessness. There’s a ‘swarm’ scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a George Romero movie.
It was important for me to deal with real social issues, for example the homeless. I don’t think necessarily when you’re living in the margins like that you’re necessarily tender or merciful to other people – it’s a very difficult life. And at the same time it was important to have my protagonist stripped of everything in his life. There were other elements for me as well that I liked playing with, and yes, the scene evokes the cinema of George Romero. And the western, the ending of the film is very much like a western and for me it’s very important to mix real social issues with the elements of fable and the elements of mythology.
Watch a scene clip:
Staying Vertical is now screening at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival.