Only two characters figure prominently in Bird People, Pascale Ferran’s alternately mundane and magical tale of extreme liberation, which is set almost entirely at a Hilton adjacent to Paris’ Charles De Gaulle Airport. Before getting hermetic, however, Ferran serves up an expansive prologue in which her camera flits and darts, birdlike, among the diverse passengers of a commuter train, eavesdropping on their conversations, their music, and their random thoughts. None of this has any bearing on the twin stories that follow (though one of the two protagonists is briefly seen); it’s just the movie’s way of suggesting, in advance, that the anxieties it explores are universal. We could potentially wind up following any of these people, and each journey might be every bit as unexpected.
Eventually, Bird People settles into its first part, entitled “Gary,” which focuses on an American businessman (Josh Charles) who’s flown to Paris for a quick meeting before heading to an even more crucial leg of his trip in Dubai. Jet-lagged and stressed out, Gary impulsively decides not to get on the plane—a decision described in third-person narration, though this omniscient voice (Mathieu Amalric) never surfaces again. Camping out in his hotel room, Gary quits his job, sells his stock, leaves his wife (Radha Mitchell, seen via an epic Skype call), and announces his intention of remaining in Paris indefinitely, with no particular plan. He’s just “had enough,” he tells everyone, calmly deflecting their incredulous protests. This section, which takes up roughly the film’s first hour, refuses to flinch from the logistical details of such wholesale abandonment; anyone who found Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret overly exacting will likewise get frustrated here, as the two films share a fascination with knock-down, drag-out process.
Ferran, however, has a very different destination in mind. It would be a disservice to reveal much about Bird People’s second part, titled “Audrey;” the film’s trailer makes a point of not showing what happens (there’s barely a hint, even), and it’s best experienced as a delightful surprise. Suffice it to say that Audrey (Anaïs Demoustier) is the maid who cleans Gary’s room every day, and that she experiences a parallel burst of harrowing freedom, one that defies rationality altogether. This extended sequence features some of the most remarkable special-effects work in cinema history—not in the usual jaw-dropping sense, but by virtue of appearing completely ordinary and wholly convincing. (It must involve a combination of CGI and practical work, but distinguishing the two is virtually impossible.) It’s also just magnificently goofy, unafraid to court ridicule and confident enough to take captivating detours, including a truly lovely interlude in which Audrey poses nude for a Japanese artist staying at the hotel, and is paid in Pringles. Bird People is sui generis, and if the inevitable epilogue in which Gary and Audrey finally meet disappoints, that’s mostly because it’s the sole conventional element of a film that finds beauty and drama in the tiniest places.