If you have any plans to see Bird People, Pascale Ferran’s whimsical study of mid-life dissatisfaction and the various methods we all use to abate its influence, try to go in as cold as possible. The film, as flawed as it is, becomes more delightful the less you know about it beforehand. Not that its premise necessarily sounds like it would make for anything special. Two strangers (played by Josh Charles and Anaïs Demoustier) cross paths in exceedingly unexpected ways during their time in a hotel near Charles de Gaulle Airport just outside Paris. Charles plays Gary Newman, a disillusioned Silicon Valley programmer on an extended layover, and Demoustier is Audrey Camuzet, a maid at the hotel whose piqued curiosity leads to a situation that grants her strange powers. As both Gary and Audrey come to terms with the unhappiness in their lives, they gradually become clued in to the different ways they might be able to make their lives more fulfilled. As familiar as this overarching concept might sound, Ferran, for better and for worse, throws in some structural and visual curveballs to keep us on our toes. Chief among them is the odd, bifurcated structure: Charles and Demoustier, in fact, share barely any screen time, their stories play one after the other, and neither of them are even seen until after a brief preamble in which Ferran’s camera glides from person to person on a train while voiceovers indicate their inner thoughts. Even though we finally settle on our two main characters, Ferran seems to insinuate here that any of these other humans’ stories could have been just as interesting. And indeed, in more ways than one, Bird People is a film larger than just the two characters being explored: It’s about people in different forms of transit. The film opens with a series of impeccably framed long shots set inside stations and on trains that serve to heighten the feelings of desperation, longing and ennui that Ferran aims to evoke. There are plenty more visual wonders in store after that opening montage, and many of the shots have a genuinely painterly quality: One particular shot of the window of a hotel room, bathed in natural light, overlooking the runways of De Gaulle, is one of the most spectacular moving images I’ve seen in some time.
If only it didn’t take Bird People so long to get to these ecstatic moments.
It’s difficult for Bird People’s aesthetic briliance, however, to overcome the weakness of Ferran and co-writer Guillaume Bréaud’s tone-deaf script, one that embraces platitudes as if they were statements of infinite wisdom. (Case in point: “I guess I’ve changed!” declares Charles in one pivotal scene. “It can happen, you know. People change.” So we’ve heard, Gary…so we’ve heard.) Even if he had good lines to deliver, though, Charles simply isn’t equipped enough to handle the inordinate gravity of his half of the film, which is, at its core, not much more than a ploddingly familiar domestic drama. Where Demoustier is wispily beguiling, capturing perfectly the essence of discovery and the excitement of unexpected emotional growth, Charles channels his energy inward, choosing to utter most of his lines through clenched teeth and a vacant scowl. The sad white businessman is a character type we’ve all seen before, and Charles strains to elevate it beyond cliché, to little avail. For all of the first half’s woefully stilted dialogue and cripplingly downbeat tone, though, Audrey’s half is as visually rambunctious and formally breathless as any entire film released thus far this year. Without giving too much away, once Ferran leans fully into magical realism, accepting it as an integral part of the story she’s trying to tell, Bird People becomes a beaming example of a filmmaker fully basking in cinema’s seemingly limitless potential to poetically evoke a character’s subjective inner life. This sense is helped immeasurably by the subtlest of animal CGI: Most of the time, it’s near impossible to tell which effects are practical and which were created on a computer. It’s rare to see a film generate such a tactile sense of wonder as Ferran’s does in Audrey’s section. If only it didn’t take Bird People so long to get to these ecstatic moments. At one point during its first half, Gary remarks to his soon-to-be ex-wife over Skype that he has no choice but to quit his job and leave her and their kids because he feels “like a lump of sugar dissolving at the bottom of a cup.” That, incidentally, is a pretty accurate way of describing the experience of watching Bird People until the second half kicks into gear. Once it does, though, Ferran’s film (quite literally) soars, and, warts and all, it’s ultimately worth the price of admission simply to get there.