French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie has a rare and wicked gift for making films that unfold like dreams: not the zany, extravagant flights of fancy that some filmmakers imagine to be dream logic, but the charged, smudged sequencing of half-banal, half-bizarre events that we muddle through in our sleep. In his hot-and-heavy 2013 Hitchcock riff 'Stranger by the Lake', everyday erotic reverie blurred into shadowy peril. This follow-up, which is marginally more clothed but no less risqué, might have been titled 'Stranger Still'.
In its measured, quiet opening stages, it seems Guiraudie's ambling story is more about staying circular than vertical: as gangly, creatively blocked screenwriter Leo (Damien Bonnard) drifts through a scrubby stretch of rural France, personal encounters are alternated and repeated, with subtly varying results. He tries to persuade a sullenly pretty local lad that he has a face for the big screen, but he can't part the young man from his elderly, Pink Floyd-fixated minder. Moving on, Leo courts and knocks up a disaffected female shepherd (the excellent India Hair, calmly projecting inner chaos like a Gallic Michelle Williams) who then wants no part in raising the child. Her schlubby dad has shuttered sexual yearnings of his own, while deep in the forest, a kooky New Age healer only complicates matters. Let's not even get into the wolves prowling the perimeter. Rich fodder for a screenplay, you'd think, though Leo can barely muster a line.
Guiraudie fares a bit better. What initially looks like a random cycle of exchanges and incidents becomes something more cohesively curious: a meditation on man's need for guardianship and companionship, sometimes in the shape of a single person. (Where else but in a dream do multiple roles merge so fluidly?) And if it's less consistently explicit than Guiraudie's last film — 'consistently' being the operative word; here's a director not shy of gazing serenely across genitalia as if they were mountainscapes — sexuality permeates its perspective throughout, creating, rupturing and terminating lives by turn.
At one graphic point, a baby emerges from a woman's vagina in a queasy torrent of bilious goo; in glaring, dehumanising light, Guiraudie's camera captures this wholly natural event as if it were the most alien thing in the world. In any state of consciousness, vertical or horizontal, this frostily fascinating film shows life to be a pretty surreal event.