Flight risks abound in Pascale Ferran’s charming, audacious Bird People, a film that tracks the dizzying rush to freedom of two restive souls both grounded in a particularly dreary, confining location: an airport hotel. The bulwark-like Hilton that’s a quick shuttle ride from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport becomes a
crucial way station for identities — and bodies — to be cast off and reconfigured.
A similar kind of reimagining is at work in Bird People, Ferran’s fourth feature (which she co-wrote with Guillaume Bréaud) in 20 years and only her second, after her incandescent Lady Chatterley (2006), to open in the U.S. Just as that adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s once-scandalous novel (or, more precisely, of John Thomas and Lady Jane, the second of three versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that he wrote) did away with the starchy softcore fumbling that marred previous film versions in favor of direct, unabashed, joyful lust, Bird People finds new ways to anatomize 21st-century malaise. Firmly rooted in everyday particulars — primarily the transactions (business, emotional, or otherwise) facilitated by
the time- and space-obliterating devices
to which we are constantly tethered — Ferran’s movie dares to venture, for much of its second half, into fantasy.
This molting — of self, of genre — begins with the bustle of a morning commute aboard the RER B, a regional train line that terminates at de Gaulle. Among the passengers, whose thoughts and grousings we are made privy to, is Audrey (Anaïs Demoustier), a somewhat adrift university student on her way to her housekeeping job in that grim Hilton. She punches in at the lodging shortly before the check-in of Gary (The Good Wife‘s Josh Charles), a Silicon Valley executive who’s scheduled to be in Paris
for less than 24 hours, enough time to fit
in a meeting with tetchy French business partners before heading to Dubai. Both characters, who don’t officially meet until the film’s closing minutes, signal growing restlessness; they are increasingly
distracted by airborne objects — planes
taking off, sparrows alighting.
After these introductory scenes, Bird People splits into two chapters, roughly 50 minutes apiece, that trace each protagonist’s complete transformation. Gary’s may be the less dramatic, but it is no less startling: After a jet-lagged anxiety attack that seizes him sometime around midnight, he decides to abandon everything: his job, his wife, his children — his entire cushy, Northern California–technocrat existence. Even though this rupture is enacted by a character we know little about, the radical break still feels exhilarating, tapping into that common taboo desire to walk away from it all for good. Ferran and Bréaud’s writing is especially sharp in these scenes, a mix of passive and active voices that convey both Gary’s self-pity and firm resolve. “I wish this would have hit me at a better time,” he coolly tells his California colleagues, flipping out several time zones away over the prospect of the Dubai deal falling to pieces. This resigned declaration, one that suggests Gary thinks of himself as a man acted upon, a man outside himself, soon hardens into an unshakable credo: “I don’t want to go on like this.”
He can’t go on, he’ll go on: As Gary severs ties, especially during a grueling, acrimonious Skype session with his spouse (Radha Mitchell), the misery that’s been building up over the past several years of
a long-loveless marriage turns savage (“I can’t take you anymore”). Although intensely focused on the present — Gary’s life before or after his decision is of little importance — Bird People never suggests that this sundering of bonds isn’t a violent (at least psychically) act. Yet the movie,
refreshingly, has no interest in condemning or vindicating — in explaining — Gary’s actions; rather, the emphasis is on his leap into the unknown.
Of Audrey’s metamorphosis, it would be uncharitable to reveal too much — only that this section boasts Bird People‘s most spectacular filmmaking, scenes that bear no traces of the F/X trickery obviously needed to make them. The hotel maid’s transformation allows her a more intimate look at the hardships that some of her co-workers and fellow Parisians silently endure — a necessary contrast to Gary’s excessive
privilege, though one that Ferran wisely
refrains from emphasizing to the point of thudding obviousness. (I do wish, however, that some of the signs and wonders the
director spotlights weren’t so on the nose: The camera lingers on an HSBC advertisement above one of the airport’s moving walkways that reads, “Welcome to a world of opportunity”; Gary’s last name is the none-too-subtle Newman.)
Both Gary and Audrey step into a void, a blank space augmented by the airport-zone nowheresville that they’re temporarily
inhabiting. But that nowhere is, of course,
a specific somewhere: The Eiffel Tower, however tiny, is visible in the distance.
An analogous paradox is at play in Gary
and Audrey’s first encounter, when he is flummoxed by the French word personne, which means both “nobody” and its opposite, “person.” The particular genius of Bird People lies in the way that even those elemental, seemingly irreducible terms are scrambled and destabilized even further.