Bird People: elliptical, beautiful and baffling

October 2, 2014

Bird People

Grade: 87

Cast: Josh Charles, Anais Demoustier, Radha Mitchell

Director: Pascale Ferran

Rating: Not rated

Running time: 127 minutes

In French and English with English subtitles


Let’s stipulate that Pascale Ferran’s audacious Bird People is not the sort of movie that one recommends without equivocation. It is a strange and sometimes discomfiting movie that occasionally gets a little heavy-handed as it traces the trajectories of two disrupted souls through the depressingly neutral territory of an airport hotel. There is not much narrative meat here, and much of this elliptical film is composed of “moments” that seem to have little to do with either of the two characters. It’s apt to confuse you, as it did me.

Ferran’s first feature since Lady Chatterley in 2006, Bird People is best received as a kind of tone poem on the modern condition — a movie rooted in the mundane everydayness of human existence that in the end yields to the fantastical — helped along by some remarkable special-effects moviemaking (which we won’t spoil here). It didn’t have to be two hours long to make its point, but if you stick with the film it’s liable to stick with you.

It starts out aboard the RER B, a French train line that terminates at Charles de Gaulle outside Paris. (The Eiffel Tower is just barely visible on the horizon, a subtle dig, perhaps, at all those Paris-set films that have it looming outside every window.) Among the passengers on this train are Audrey (Anais Demoustier), a student who’s working her way through university via a housekeeping job at the airport Hilton, and Gary (Josh Charles), a Silicon Valley executive charging through town on a business trip. While they don’t connect until near the end of the film, we understand this is a circuit that needs to be completed.

After this prelude, the film is split roughly in half, with 50 minutes devoted to Gary’s giddy anxiety breakdown — he barricades himself in his hotel room, quits his job and indulges in a cruel Skype session in which he informs his wife (Radha Mitchell) back in Northern California that he’s leaving her. While we understand that Gary is unhappy, Ferran seems to have little interest in exploring the particulars of why (of course he’s unhappy, he’s a technocrat trapped in a loveless marriage who’s supposed to fly on to Dubai after a night in de Gaulle), instead of focusing on the remaking of the man. It’s no coincidence Gary’s last name is, groan, “Newman.”

Then, the focus shifts to Audrey — and another kind of transformation, one that will baffle some while delighting others.

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