The life of a businessman with a demanding travel schedule can be a draining experience.The life of a maid working an airport hotel servicing these businessmen can be equally draining. So drained are the souls at the center of Pascale Ferran’s Bird People, the French language drama that premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The businessman is Gary Newmann (Josh Charles), a silicon valley representative in Paris for a quick meeting before jetting off to Dubai. The maid is Audrey (Anais Demoustier), a young college student working the job to make her way through school. Gary’s existence is a lonely one, travelling by himself to a beautiful city he can never experience before moving on to another port of call. He sits in a meeting surrounded by men speaking another language as a translator breathlessly whispers to him in English. Voices and sounds overlap, creating a cacophony of unintelligible tech speak. He is miserable. So miserable that after a late night panic attack sends him out to the street to catch his breath in the fresh air, he becomes resolute. This life is just not worth it. A few scant hours later, he skips the plane to Dubai, quits his job, leaves his wife and children and settles down for an extended stay in the Hilton by the airport.
Hotel malaise in a foreign country would likely evoke thoughts of Lost in Translation. And with these similarities, as well as the general design of films like this, would come the expectation that the film is setting up Gary and Audrey up to have a lost weekend together. In truth, Bird People is not interested in such things. As Audrey moves from room to room making her turn down service rounds, she narrowly misses Gary as he sabotages his status quo. Ferran shows a side of the hotel culture that is not often seen. As Audrey cleans her rooms, she cannot help but poke around a tad, eventually pulling her into Gary’s world from afar. Much of her life is about observing from afar; her introduction in the film’s opening scene follows her bus ride to the hotel as she imagines what is going on in the minds and headphones of those around her. Gary could not be more different in this regard; his grand, life-changing decision is a wholly selfish one, whether motivated by genuine need or not, and his travel stupor is not particularly conducive to noticing the world around him. This is no romance.
Bird People has much more on its mind. Ferran structures the film in a novel way, choosing to focus on each player separately on Gary’s fateful day. There are long stretches where either lead disappears entirely from the frame, something that does not aggressively call attention to itself until the structure becomes clear over halfway through the film. This nonstandard approach is only scratching the surface of what is in store for the audience. There is an abrupt twist in the narrative after about 80 or so minutes that has to be experienced to be believed. It is a disorienting and bold move, one that could easily explode in the filmmakers’ faces if handled incorrectly. Indeed, the efficacy of Bird People as a success hinges on whether it pulls off its third act stunt. Marked by impressively unique camera work and sound design, the twist passes the test with flying colors. It is difficult to discuss without giving up the ghost, but rest assured that it is an experience to be seen with as little prior context as possible.
Before things get a little wild, there is a quiet drama to watch, and these first two acts require more than a bit of heavy lifting from its two leads. Josh Charles, predominantly a television actor in recent years, has the perfect dead eyes necessary to convey the world weary malaise that would lead to Gary abandoning his career and family. Charles flits through his days, unfocused and worn, until he looks out of his hotel room at the gorgeous city he is paid to inhabit but never experience, and cannot understand why he puts himself through this for no good reason. Anais Demoustier is less known on US soil, but has put together her fair share of credits in France, and acclimates herself to her role well. Her eyes are considerably brighter and more inquisitive than her counterpart, and while the film gives the audience less of a sense of her backstory, she remains intriguing none the less.
With Bird People, Pascale Ferran has crafted an intimate drama that does not play by the rules it would be expected to. It has a crazy and unexpected third act digression. It has two main characters poised for romance who practically never meet. It ends where most films like this would begin. For what is ostensibly an intimate indie drama, Bird People is remarkably adept at keeping the audience on its toes. With strong lead performances and imaginative camera work, this is the sort of film that could easily be overlooked. It would be advisable not to do so.