A key moment in this European action-adventure: The protagonist, Jonathan Anselme (Harry Treadaway), realizes that the birds he is studying for Swiss ornithologist Max Böhm (Danny Keogh) can fly over the borders of many countries without being checked by customs or immigration officers. The human world of nations, tariffs, and legal and illegal citizens means nothing to these long-legged and long-beaked birds. Their movements from this to that country (in Europe, in the Middle East, in Africa) follow other and more ancient biological laws. But their freedom from the cultural laws of humans, young Jonathan realizes, reveals not only the arbitrariness of culture, but a golden (if not diamond) opportunity for the unscrupulous.
That is the key revelation of the film, but this is how Flight of the Storks begins: Jonathan (a lanky, handsome young man with a flat English accent) arrives at the home of his boss, only to find the ornithologist is dead in a huge human-made nest. The sky is cloudy, the metal ladder to the nest is shaky, and Max's eyes and liver are being picked at by a hungry stork. Who killed him? What do the birds have to do with this murder? What is his real relationship with Jonathan (one detective asks: "Were you gay lovers?")? Who are those men watching the police investigation with binoculars? A confused Jonathan leaves the scene of the crime and follows the storks to Bulgaria, then Turkey, then Israel, where he meets a beautiful Jewish fisherwoman (Perdita Weeks), gets high with her in an airy cottage, and fucks her on a mussy mattress. The sunlight, the flesh and moans, the open window, the breezes, the swaying branches, the eyes of some mysterious man in the shadows of a barn next to the cottage (is he a spy? A detective? A smuggler?). After the fucking, the birds leave to Africa.
In its first half, Flight of the Storks—which is directed by Jan Kounen and based on a novel of the same name by Jean-Christophe Grangé (who also wrote The Crimson Rivers), is strong; the second half is weak, though still entertaining. Why does it fall apart? Because once Jonathan leaves Israel for Africa, a new narrative force begins to dominate the imagery, acting, and editing rhythms. That narrative force has a long history; it goes all the way back to the twilight of the Victorian age, back to a short novel by a Polish-born novelist, Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness. This narrative first appears as a tranquilizer dart that hits Jonathan's freckled back. He stumbles about like an animal, he falls into a lake like a drunk, he hallucinates: We learn that Max used to hypnotize him with a strange contraption in the secret basement of his Swiss home. We learn he had a childhood in the Congo and that the answers to this growing and global mystery are all in black Africa. There is also organ trafficking going on.
When he arrives in Africa, Jonathan wants more and more tranquilizers, and he has more and more hallucinations of the real world around him: the heat, the large trees, the whores, the old cars, the pitch-black skin of the poor Africans. His guide into the heart of darkness is a handsome Brazzaville hipster (Richard Lukunku) who leads him through the slums, through the war zones, and to the gate of a jungle palace. This is the heart, and in it the truth will be exposed (it's indirectly connected to the crying replicant at the end of Blade Runner).
All in all, Flight of the Storks is a lot like Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che. Both have a first part that's clearly a thriller and a second part that's clearly a horror movie. You will remember the first and forget the second.