Uneven 'Bird People' only takes flight in its enchanting second hour
Bird People IFC Films
Director: Pascale Ferran
Screenplay: Guillaume Bréaud and Pascale Ferran
Starring: Anaïs Demoustier, Josh Charles, Takylt Vongdara, Geoffrey Cantor, Radha Mitchell, Roschdy Zem and Camélia Jordana
Not rated / 2 hours, 7 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Now this is a tricky one. Odds are, if Bird People were constructed backwards, I wouldn't be giving it a positive review. The film is divided into two parts, the first focusing on one character (a disenchanted American businessman going through a mid-life crisis) and the second on another (a French maid working at a hotel). The first half is frequently awful, bordering on insufferable. The second half is kind of magic.
But it was that back half that left the most permanent impression. I was so prepared to dislike the whole movie because of the first hour. And then the rest happened. I liked it so much, I was even able to forgive the terrible final scene, which forces a connection between the two stories that it not only doesn't earn, but doesn't need.
In fact, now that you mention it, we don't need the first half of Bird People at all. (Good point, reader!) I know, I know, if we removed half the movie, we'd have to do something about that title. Bird Person doesn't have quite the same ring to it. And it's probably perilously close to the upcoming Birdman, and we wouldn't want to step on anyone's toes. Ditto Bird Girl or Bird Woman - either of those might sound like a spinoff, as if Iñárritu was setting up franchises. But one thing's for sure, this movie definitely doesn't need two of these people. As much as I usually like Josh Charles (who headlines the first segment), he's an unnecessary appendage in this case. Better to focus entirely on Anaïs Demoustier's character; maybe even add a bit more of her story to make up for the lost running time.
But alas, that's not the movie we're discussing. The movie we're discussing has both halves, and is the worse for it. The more I think about it, though, the more curious it seems that these two characters exist in the same movie. I'm not sure if this was the way the film was envisioned from the outset, or if two separate ideas or scripts were combined into one. Either way, it makes little sense. Yes, there are thematic concerns linking the two characters. And yes, they happen to exist in close proximity to one another. But neither character is essential to the other.
I mentioned the ending earlier; indeed, it seems like a tacked-on excuse for having the two coexist in the same film. Beyond its perfunctory nature, the scene justifies the behavior of Charles' character in a distinctively phony Hollywood way. Which is especially unforgivable for a non-Hollywood movie. Leave that kind of phoniness to the experts. They can have it.
Let's go ahead and start with him. Charles plays Gary Newman (get it? New man? Get it?!), who's on a business trip to Paris and is supposed to head straight over to Dubai to help his company close a deal. He takes these kinds of business trips all the time, and it's one of a number of things that he's grown sick of, and in the hours before he's scheduled to get on a flight, he decides to just quit everything. Make a new start. Leave his job, leave his wife, leave his children. He decides to just stay in Europe and leave everything else behind. He's not leaving his job over an ethical crisis. He's not leaving his wife for another woman. He's just sick of it all, and he can't take it anymore, and he doesn't have much else to say about it.
I admire that writer/director Pascale Ferran allows this narrative to play out without explicit judgment. It comes across as strange (and/or just flat-out wrong) to everyone he discusses it with - his boss, his co-workers, his lawyer, and especially his wife. But Ferran lets it play out in a matter-of-fact way, utilizing a lot of silence and hand-wringing and staring out of windows to make Gary's decision feel like a genuinely human (if not humane) decision. Except, quite honestly, the whole thing wears itself out after about five minutes. It never gets anywhere. The decision is made, and nothing that happens subsequent to that decision holds any interest. The biggest scene is an all-night Skype session between him and his wife (played by Radha Mitchell), and it's unforgivably long and unforgivably unconvincing. I generally like Charles as an actor quite a bit, but he's very bad in this role, particularly during that scene, which is meant to be the key emotional centerpiece of the first segment.
Suffice it to say, the first hour couldn't have ended soon enough.
But things shift rather quickly once the focus shifts over to Audrey, the curious, introverted maid who winds up having quite the transformative experience one evening. In this case, I can't go into too much detail, but the film suddenly takes on the form of magical realism, and follows it through for the better part of an hour. It's a terrific extended setpiece, crafted partially through subjective camerawork and crisp nighttime photography*; the sequence is filled with the kind of empathy and character insight that's conspicuously lacking in the other half - not just for Audrey, but for those she comes across.
* The visual strength is in contrast to certain other sequences, as many of the daytime interiors are shot on unattractive video that basically looks like a cheap PBS drama. The HD in this case works much better during the night scenes.
I remain conflicted about Bird People because I disliked such a hefty portion of it. I had a similar experience with Sam Mendes' Away We Go a few years back - hated about half of it, loved about half of it. At the very least, I'll give Ferran credit for knowing where his strength was, and making sure to put it second, to leave us with the magic of Audrey's story rather than the emptiness of Gary's. In the end, the latter half was too strong, too weird, too haunting, for me to ignore.