Movie Review: Bird People (2014)

If you’ve been wondering what Josh Charles has been up to since his exit from The Good Wife, I’ve got an answer for you: he’s acted in at least one indie movie, the 2014 winner of the Cannes Un Certain Regard category.

Although Bird People is far from a great, or even a good movie, its thoughtful cinematography and a couple of beautiful scenes might allow me to recommend it–especially since it’s easy to watch on Netflix. The script, directed by Pascale Ferran, who co-wrote the screenplay with Guillaume Bréaud, is a strange hybrid of the existential malaise of  Lost in Translation and the self-serious business stress of Margin Call.

Although some summaries of the film describe it as being about the aftermath of the ‘meeting’ of the two characters, the protagonists don’t actually meet for most of the film. Each of their storylines is almost a film unto itself, to the benefit of one and the detriment of the other. Audrey Camuzet is a college student who commutes to a hotel on the outskirts of Paris where she works part-time. Gary Newman (played by the sexiness-dripping above-mentioned Josh Charles) is in Paris on Important Business, which is apparently also Stressful and Fraught. I’m facetiously capitalizing these because it’s a point that the movie seems at great pains to make: this is an important guy, but man is it hard to be a white guy with responsibilities.

For me, the biggest problem in this film is this character, Gary Newman. His is the story of a man getting sick of the life he’s leading and deciding to abandon his responsibilities.  This might be interesting if he went on to do something, but he doesn’t: from the moment that the voice-over announces his “decision,” Gary Newman goes on to have a series of painful conversations with his business partners, and eventually his wife, about how to tie up loose ends now that he’s decided that he’s leaving it all behind.

There are hints, here and there, about the kinds of conflict that could have led Gary Newman to “quit” the entirety of his old life in order to “stay in Paris” (or, sometimes, “stay in Europe,” which might indicate the fantasy element of this desire: not a specific country, just “Europe”). But to me, they’re not enough. Although his last name suggests that he’s trying to be a new man, Gary looks to me like an old man in an old story about leaving your responsibilities behind. I can believe that his wife, Elizabeth, is probably hard to live with, but I have serious problems with a film that is trying to portray life with two young children as tiresome–without at least mentioning whether they’re part of his malaise or not. I’m not saying that having children shouldn’t be portrayed as painful–there are great examples with Bill Murray’s (him, again! he was one lead in Lost in Translation) character’s bully twins in Rushmore, or the little kid from The Good Son. But I can’t forgive the oversight of failing to even mention the children except for making them a joint entity with his wife. Neither Gary nor his wife seem all that concerned with the kids’ reaction to daddy’s absence, either; they’re far more wrapped up in their own palpable distaste for each other.

It’s not just that I’m offended by the idea of a male character who just wants to “quit” his life and family. It’s that, in terms of narrative motivation, Ferran and Bréaud don’t bother to expand Newman’s feeling for his family with anything more than a tense, harsh skype-session with his admittedly bitchy-seeming wife.This isn’t about the film hurting my sensibilities by not even mentioning his children–although I am, slightly–it’s about leaving a gaping question in the middle of the narrative and filling it with angry, possibly back-stabbing businessmen.

Audrey’s storyline has much of the nuance and whimsy that is absent from Gary’s. There’s more to like in Audrey’s storyline, and not just because it’s more relatable: an especially beautiful scene toward the end brings the title to life much more literally than I expected. To be less coy: she turns into a bird. But even before her storyline takes flight, her storyline is more taut, more grounded. From the opening scene when we first meet Audrey, there’s more of the small, beautiful parts of life that actually make this movie enjoyable: we’re allowed to see and hear the thoughts of a few bus riders; there’s a guy listening to hip hop, a guy listening to classical music while blissfully staring at a woman’s cleavage, and Audrey, who’s calculating how much of her week she’s spending on the commute to work.

Her plot line has less contrivance than Gary’s, too: she’s just a girl, in college, trying to work and live and be. She’s got a boss who oscillates between needy and bossy, and a friend at work who invites her to parties. But the real centerpiece of the film is the scene where she turns into a bird and eavesdrops and interacts with hotel guests, and learns how to fly.

Overall, Bird People fails to come together as a cohesive movie. The whimsy and wonder of Audrey’s storyline is not mirrored in Gary’s, and, ironically, Gary’s storyline is less grounded in anything that feels real either. I’d say, watch the movie, but skip Gary Newman and go straight through to Audrey. It’ll be a shorter film, but a better one.