When Bird People opened in Montreal last month, it was the deliberately vague description that really grabbed the attention: “Bird People - The most controversial film at Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2014.” Un Certain Regard is where the festival’s most delightfully unusual films are screened. And Bird People is, to say the least, unusual.
It was also a much anticipated premiere, given that it is director Pascale Ferran’s first film since her internationally praised and award-winning Lady Chatterley in 2006.
Bird People follows two protagonists and tells each story consecutively. An opening sequence briefly introduces both characters before the narrative is conspicuously split in two: a black screen with the word “Gary” indicates the beginning of the story of an American businessman in the throes of an existential crisis. The second chapter, “Audrey,” tells the story of a French student who works as a hotel maid in the Hyatt hotel near Charles de Gaulle airport, outside Paris.
Though both are strangers to each other, Gary is staying at the same Hyatt where Audrey works. Their stories are neatly paralleled because both face similar anxieties: Audrey is fed up with the redundancy of her daily routine, despairingly counting her weekly hours of train commuting; Gary wonders why he puts up with such a demanding job, only to be unrelentingly unhappy. Both Audrey and Gary fantasize about freedom, as implied – repeatedly, and much too literally – by the multitude of shots depicting each character opening hotel room windows, inhaling deeply with eyes closed.
The “controversial” tag no doubt refers to its bold use of magical realism. Ferran juxtaposes ultra-realistic scenes such as the lengthy (and truly boring) “break-up” Skype sessions between Gary and his wife, with such supernatural manifestations as the human-like thoughts of a bird heard in voice-over.
Unfortunately, the delivery is far too literal to be taken seriously, even for fans of Magical Realism. Witness the point-of-view shot of a bird flying around Charles de Gaulle airport, with Bowie’s Space Oddity playing on the soundtrack. While the bird circles the control towers in Paris, Bowie sings: “Ground control to Major Tom.” As beautiful as the cinematography certainly is, and as much as I adore Bowie, it’s all too visually and verbally juvenile. (Though it’s not a comedy, the audience laughed the night I saw it.)
Taken as a whole, it simply doesn’t work. And yet there are some impressive and memorable moments. The blending of different languages throughout – French, English and Japanese – gives the film another delicate layer of the human alienation it seeks to examine. When a bird lands on the windowsill of one of the hotel’s occupants, for instance, it has a charming exchange with a Japanese painter — a scene which could have made for an interesting short film in itself.
Despite some stunning visuals and the potential of its simple premise – two individuals’ burning desire to be free as birds, leaving the mind-numbing quotidian behind – Bird People feels far too long, not least because it tends to linger in the least interesting parts. Moreover, there is such a thing as subtlety, but there isn’t much of it on offer here.
An avid film-goer and passionate cook, Maxine Napier Macdonald received a BA in cultural studies from McGill University last spring.