Last year’s Bird People is the exact kind of French indie movie I used to rent from Blockbuster as a kid to drive my parents crazy. It’s a deliberately bizarre work that deals mostly in somber, humorless tones in its first half before taking an inexplicable left turn into some really goofy, exuberant territory in the second. I really wanted to like this movie, but the two pieces never came together for me. As mirrors of each other the film’s two halves don’t have much to say about their reflections. They remain separate, isolated, which may have been the intended to match the narrative, but makes for a frustrating viewing experience. Besides, the second segment is vastly more interesting than the first, so the whole thing feels off-balance.
What Works: Audrey
Let’s get the main hook/spoiler/ridiculousness out of the way: about halfway into the movie one of the two main characters turns into a bird. I can’t explain it. She can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that happens. Audrey, the bird person in question, is a meek hotel maid who lives her life vicariously through the guests that pass through the rooms she cleans. She’s a nonsexual voyeur, a fly on the wall, an observer. When she unexpectedly turns into a sparrow she’s suddenly able to indulge in her observations up close. Her small size and ability to fly enables her to intrude & eavesdrop unnoticed and she even feels brave enough to interact with the people she’s watching, something she wouldn’t dare in human form. For lack of a better phrase she’s free as a bird. It’s an unusual, interesting idea that could’ve been stretched out & explored enough to justify its own movie. The problem is it comes too late in this one; the damage had already been done by Gary’s segment.
What Doesn’t Work: Gary
The film’s opening segment feels like a completely different movie, a much more sullen movie than the fanciful bird transformation story of the back half. It follows Gary, a guest at the hotel that employs Audrey, as he suffers a personal crisis/panic attack on a business trip that prompts him to sever all ties to his work & his family. Through a series of telephone & Skype conversations, Gary frees himself of all personal responsibilities to the shock & disgust of his wife & coworkers. It’s an isolating performance that puts a lot of weight on actor Josh Charles’ shoulders and, unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a weight he can carry. After watching Tom Hardy master this type of one-man-against-the-world-and-himself story in last year’s Locke, Charles’ performance can’t help but look weak by comparison. Gary’s Skype conversation with his wife should be an absolute soul-crusher, but instead comes off as more of a shrug.
What’s Missing: Who knows?
There are some connections to be made between Gary’s refusal to remain a casual observer in his own life and severing personal ties to obtain freedom & Audrey’s transformation into a sparrow that allows her leave behind the pretense of her maid duties and look into people’s lives more openly. These connections don’t feel fully fleshed out, though. It’s as if this feature-length film were truly meant to be a short or there was a missing third missing segment that would’ve helped tie both parts together or balance them out. As is, I think Bird People is half of a great movie. That half just comes too late to win me back over from its lackluster partner.
Superficial Side Note
I found it very distracting that Gary’s full name was Gary Newman. It’d be like if a character’s name were Mark Mothersbrow, Thomas Colby or Deborah Farry. While watching most of Gary’s segment I periodically wished I was listening to The Pleasure Principle with my eyes closed instead. Actually, I think I’m going to do that right now.
Bird People is currently streaming on Netflix.