DIRECTED BY: Pascale Ferran
FEATURING: Josh Charles,
PLOT: Set at a hotel by Paris’ Orly Airport, the story follows an American businessman who suddenly decides to quit his job and a French maid who has an odd experience one night on her rounds.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s only half-weird (and only about half-good, too).
COMMENTS: Bird People has some strange concepts, an eccentric tone, and an unusual structure; just barely enough to keep it watchable through its long and slow 2+ hour runtime. It begins with a prologue in which we flit among various characters on a Paris commuter train, sometimes listening to their cell phone conversations, sometimes hearing their thoughts. They talk about their jobs or parties they’re going to; no one really has much of interest to say, or, if they might, we don’t get the opportunity to get to know them. Which, of course, is the point. What we have here is another of those Continental “cinema d’ennui” films about how modern life and technology destroy our interconnectedness (crucial life events are conveyed remotely, by an e-mail) and drain away our sense of wonder. As usual in this subgenre, the director wallows in the mundane in order to make her point, requiring enormous patience from the viewer as we watch characters smoke endless cigarettes (this is a French film, after all) or long takes of birds flying around. Whether you find your patience rewarded is up in the air; if you’re an arthouse patron, I’d guess the movie has about a fifty-fifty chance of success.
The film is divided into two halves. The first is straight dramatic realism, following Gary, a software engineer working for a small start-up firm. He’s mildly successful and upwardly mobile; he owns a major block of stock in the company but still needs to do hands-on work, meaning that he must stop-over for a night in Paris to take a meeting while on his way to Dubai to work on a power plant project. While sleeping in his hotel room he has an anxiety attack and abruptly decides that he wants to quit it all; his job, his family, the stress, and simply start his life over in his Paris hotel room with no plan. It’s a rare leading role for accomplished character actor Josh Charles, whom we both envy (because what slave to the dollar [or Euro] hasn’t daydreamed about chucking it all and starting fresh?) and disapprove of (because the script doesn’t gloss over the way he leaves his coworkers and wife in a bind—one of the movie’s most alive sequences is the painful conversation where he breaks up with his wife over Skype). The second half of the film dwells on maid Audrey (an appealing Anaïs Demoustier) as she makes her dismal rounds, and here is where the magical part of the movie’s magical realism happens. We won’t spoil the surprise as to what happens in her storyline. Neither will we guarantee that you’ll be blown away by its poetry. The contrast between airplanes and birds makes for an interesting metaphor, but while the film boasts good performances, cinematography, and other scattered points of interest, Bird People never really takes off.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The surrealism stands in stark contrast with the stripped-down naturalism that has come before, and it is in this stretch that the film finally leaves terra firma and takes flight.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)