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Ever since her acclaimed first film Petits arrangements avec les morts, Pascale Ferran has been considered one of the French cinema’s most gifted filmmakers, especially interesting for being slightly askew. The idea of her making a film about an American adrift in Paris was tantalizing. Bird People (her first feature since 2006’s Lady Chatterly) is more than slightly askew—it’s at a vertiginous angle (maybe the perspective of a careening bird).
It’s hard not to think of Birdy, or even the Burt Lancaster film, Bird Man of Alcatraz, when watching the film. Birds tend to symbolize escape from earthbound reality. Bird People is about Gary Newman, a businessman for a tech company. The company is successful, and so is he. But he’s stuck in a rut, and an unhappy marriage: the classic midlife crisis. When he has a layover in Paris on the way to Dubai, he stays on at the airport, cancelling his business trip, so he can think things over—and maybe start over.
Not an original thesis, and we’re reminded especially of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Somewhere. Newman finds himself in an airport hotel, having stranded himself in transit. He never goes to a genuine environment—he doesn’t even go from the airport to Paris. He also never really reaches out to other people.
The film is also about Audrey, a young woman who works at the hotel as a maid. She’s a student at the Sorbonne, though we don’t know what she’s studying. We also don’t know much about her background. Anyone familiar with France knows that it’s uncommon for French students to work during their studies (the course load is often heavier than in the US). At one point we hear a strained phone conversation with her father. It’s an odd conversation, with the father prying into her relationship with a boy—maybe with the idea that she get hooked up (in the old sense of the word).
Her work relationships are tense as well. So Audrey also needs escape. She finds it to a degree when she happens on Newman’s room and realizes that something is not right. He’s still there when he should have left. The dates in the organizer he’d conveniently left open on a table seem out of whack. She notices him behaving oddly on the hotel premises.
There was an interesting possibility for a Lost in Translation-type encounter. Perhaps Ms. Ferran felt that that had already been done. She takes a more imaginative approach, by having her (female) protagonist magically turn into a bird. Metamorphosis can be harrowing (think Kafka or Will Self, or Philip Roth’s The Breast) but here it’s sprightly and joyful, even funny. It’s exactly what the protagonists of Birdy were dreaming about. We see Audrey getting used to flying (and landing) and also avoiding hungry cats and owls. But it goes on for too long, without much point. There’s a nice interlude with a Japanese man who feeds and then sketches her. But there’s no meeting with Newman, which seems like a lost opportunity.
On a more down-to-earth level, Ferran captures the half-world of airports from the point of view of those whose working lives are spent there. We’re never sure if this airport world is a transition point, or a climate-controlled hell on earth. There’s also lively comedy when Newman abruptly announces to his co-workers that he’s quitting. There are funny exchanges about legal action and share ownership finagling that ring both absurdist and true. It’s a credit to the script (by Ferran and Guillaume Bréaud) that it doesn’t have a cultural tin ear. Ferran also is skilful at wringing humor and drama from contemporary communications media. Only the overlong Skype session between Newman and his wife drags, and also seems derivative of similar scenes (pre-Skype) in Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas and other films.
Stylistically, Pascale Ferran is an edgy director not content to simply tell a story. Her restlessness takes her into Godardian territory: voice-over narration that we get at one moment and never again, winking texts caught in airport advertisements, and a visual tic reminiscent of TV vertical-control problems. You at least know a living artist is at work, but it comes across as directorial fidgeting. She’s much more effective when she concentrates on her characters.
Often when European directors feature American characters, they use expat actors who are well-meaning but not first-rate, or non-actors. That combined with inauthentic dialogue and cross-cultural direction makes for flat, unsatisfying performances. But with Josh Charles, the director has found a happy balance. He seems like a real person, not a Hollywood type, but still has an assured screen presence—one distinctly on the sour side, even as he gradually moves towards an affirmative resolution. Watching his performance is like biting into a juicy lemon, but a lemon nonetheless.
Anaïs Demoustier is alternately (and mostly wonderfully) sly, curious, and cornered. She’s pretty in a coltish way that makes one think of a young Sandrine Bonnaire. Contrary to the mostly passive Newman, she’s skittishly active even when doing routine grind-work.
Bird People isn’t completely successful, and it’s so off-beat that even a sympathetic description will put many people off. Yet it’s always alive, a confounding but pleasurable look into the latest stage of one of France’s best directors. After seeing it, airports and airport hotels will never be the same.
Production: Denis Freyd
Distribution: Archipel 35, France 2 Cinéma