Every now & then you’ll encounter a strange picture about writer’s block written by someone who’s obviously suffering writer’s block. These movies are usually penned by Charlie Kauffman, but in this case it’s Stranger By the Lake’s Alain Guiraudi who’s driven mad by the blank page into making something deeply, surreally frustrated. Staying Vertical is an abstract nightmare of mistakes & obligations haunting a frustrated writer as he avoids his professional responsibilities at the expense of everything he holds dear in life. Our creatively stumped protagonist starts his journey with a nice job & total freedom. His biggest worries are being rejected while cruising for sex or becoming consumed with boredom. By the conclusion, just a year later, he’s homeless, destitute, a public pariah, an estranged father, and literally surrounded by wolves. The events that lead him down that path can be logically explained in a linear progression, but that logic falls apart once you apply them to a larger metaphorical meaning. It seems to be solely the result of Guiraudi needing to put something, anything on the page. As with Kaufman’s similar works, that back-against-the-wall creative necessity leads to some . . . interesting choices.
I have no problem admitting that some of Stranger by the Lake’s immediate appeal was its explicit depiction of casual gay sex, a kind of shock value transgression that paired wonderfully with its emotional thriller beats and thematic explorations of dangerous intimacy & loneliness. Staying Vertical boasts a lot of the same in-your-face vulgarity, including hardcore intergenerational sex, close-up shots of genitalia & human birth, and bizarre dialogue like, “Even if I wanted to, I can’t sleep with my son’s grandpa.” It’s far from a nonstop bacchanal of Kuso-esque perversions, though. Mostly we watch our writer’s block-afflicted protagonist drift through the French countryside, a major city, and a village in-between, racking up a mounting weight of responsibilities & obligations as he avoids the one thing he should be doing at the outset. In his aimless wandering through an unfulfilling life he establishes an absurd scenario where there’s essentially five people in all of France and they all want something from him that he’s unprepared to deliver. His obligations surround him like a pack of wolves, a point that’s driven home when he’s literally surrounded by a pack of wolves.
Of course, this kind of purposeless, for-its-own-sake shock value & absurdity is going to strike many people as incoherent nonsense. The sequence of events in Staying Vertical has a self-driving rhythm & inevitability to it that almost distracts you from the fact that it has no destination or grand scale metaphor in mind. The film functions as an abstract window into Alain Guiraudi’s peculiar anxieties as he pushes a barebones story essentially about Nothing to its furthest extremes, just for the exercise. These experiments in meta attacks on the author’s own writer’s block can lead to fascinating places both visually & philosophically, though, as long as you’re willing to meet the work halfway as an exhibition and an act of self-therapy. I can’t say I wouldn’t have rather have Guiraudi’s fearless, straightforward story about wolves, sheepherding, and the state of farm life in the face of modernized industry, but the extreme, absurdist self-reflection he delivers in Staying Vertical instead is fascinating, occasionally haunting stuff. I just hope he’s okay.