Thursday, October 9, 2014

Learning to Fly: Bird People

Josh Charles in Pascale Ferran’s Bird People

Josh Charles glowers and pouts eloquently through his half of Pascale Ferran’s Bird People. Charles plays Gary Newman, a globetrotting Silicon Valley executive whose name, when spoken aloud, must not set off the same memory trigger for everyone that it does for English speakers of a certain age. (Every time he introduces himself to someone, I wait for him to add, “Here in my car, I feel safest of all.”) Newman is in Paris for a quick meeting with some nervous business partners before heading on to Dubai, where he has some major undertaking waiting that he hopes won’t keep him in the Middle East through Christmas. He never makes it to Dubai; after a rough night in his Paris hotel room, he decides that he’s trotted the globe one time too many, and impulsively quits his job and cuts ties with his family.

As he’s demonstrated in his TV roles on Sports Night, In Treatment, and The Good Wife (where the surprise murder of his character last season immolated the Internet), Charles is a fine minimalist actor with a gift for signaling that something dark and troubled is churning beneath his mostly unruffled surface, and he signals his character’s dissatisfaction in an early scene when he’s being taxied from the Paris airport to his hotel. After exchanging a few words with his driver, he briefly gazes at the scenery unfurling outside the car window before looking down at his laptop and automatically clicking on the link he’s received to a clip of stupid TV bloopers. He knows that he’s an ugly-American cliché and that it’s the wrong use of his precious first few minutes in the country, but he can’t help himself.

Anaïs Demoustier in Bird People
Bird People, which Ferran co-wrote with Guillaume Bréaud, is structured as a modest version of the kind of multiple-character, overlapping-storyline epic that inspired the writer Alissa Quart to coin the term “hyperlink cinema.” The other main character is Audrey (Anaïs Demoustier), who works as a housekeeper at the hotel where Gary Newman is experiencing his epiphany, or his meltdown, or is just hitting the wall. Their paths cross, sort of, when she’s cleaning his room after he’s supposed to have left for his next destination, and suddenly notices him laid across the bed, unhappily asleep—a scene that sums up the relationship of the young working woman who keeps a protective watch over the rich man who is oblivious to her existence. When the movie switches over to the housekeeper’s story, it takes a turn into fanciful surrealism that comments on how the younger, menial worker, who had fewer assets and seemingly fewer options but also isn’t weighed down with responsibilities and the expectations of others, may find it easier to get airborne.

The movie’s second half is charming and bold—and a lot less didactic than that description probably makes it sound. But the “realistic” first half has its own kind of wonder, showing the mechanics of just how difficult it might be someone in the executive’s position to just change his life. It happens all the time in movies like Box of Moonlight, and the change is usually presented as a heroic, swashbuckling act, the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. Charles doesn’t play the executive as a hero, and there’s nothing exhilarating about his decision: it’s a matter of a series of phone calls and Skype conversations in which he first has to field the anger of his colleagues and his wife (Radha Mitchell), then endure it as the anger shades into confused concern as they try to get him to explain what’s the matter with him—after which it’s just a matter of signing over his assets and tidying up other matters in a way that doesn’t leave anyone in a mood to sue over his “abandonment of professional responsibility.” Newman himself doesn’t make any speeches about needing to start over or "get away from that whole plastic-fantastic scene, man"; he just bleats, kind of pitifully but not without the audience’s sympathy, that “I just can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to go on like this.” (Apologetically, he tells his business partner, “I wish this would have hit me at a better time.”)

Ferran may have also been trying to de-glamorize liberation—to present in a more realistic way—in her previous film, Lady Chatterley, which was based on one of D. H. Lawrence’s early drafts for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That film won considerable acclaim, including the César for Best Film of 2007, but as someone who was never crazy about that story even in the version that Lawrence deemed publishable, I remember squirming a lot during its almost three hours, and mainly remember that the romantic leads sure did look silly when they were romping in wet grass, naked but with their galoshes on. I found Bird People, which has the advantage of not being yoked to outdated notions of the relationship of class to sexual satisfaction, much more surprising and affecting. Snug in his hotel room, Newman tells the people he’s leaving behind that there’s “no need for dramatics.” But Ferran captures the modern drama of the moment when someone who’s composed an email that’s going to blow up his life finally commits to hitting the “SEND” button.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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