REVIEWS: Fassbinder Revisited, Ozon's "Water Drops on Burning Rocks"
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/2.16.2000) — Whenever a great artist dies, an invasive ransacking occurs, with the
artist’s close admirers rummaging through desk drawers and attics like
federal agents armed with search warrants in a drug sting. The greater
the artist, the greater the haul: annotated versions of classics, with
the original ending in the author’s own hand, years of letters and diary
entries published in volumes. And in the case of Rainer Werner
Fassbinder, an unproduced play that now, seventeen years after his death
in a haze of drugs at the age of 37, has become a produced screenplay.
“Tropfen Auf Heisse Steine” was written by Fassbinder, one of the most
influential and admired of later German directors, at the tender of age
of 19. And judging by the adaptation by French filmmaker Francois Ozon
(“See the Sea,” “Criminal Lovers“) there is probably a reason why the
original author left the work unproduced: it’s not very good.
“Water Drops on Burning Rocks” (Gottes d’Eau Sur Pierres Brulantes),
in French but set in Germany in the 1970’s, is a potentially spicy tale
of a middle-aged homosexual Lothario who seduces a young man, but their
relationship becomes complicated when both men’s former girlfriends show
up on the same night. At the center is a charismatic, wicked performance
by Bernard Giraudeau, who leads a strong four-person cast, but
ultimately Ozon is unable to lift his material above its theatrical
intentions. It feels like a stage play, with clunky dialogue and
Leopold (Giraudeau) is a successful older businessman — natty in
three-piece suits, able to close a deal in a single handshake — who
effectively seduces a young, naive heretofore heterosexual, Franz (Malik
Zidi), who has a girlfriend but has always harbored curiosity and a
strange attraction for men. Franz quickly moves in with Leopold, and the
two spend the next few months picking at each other over everyday
trifles, from orderliness to the way food is prepared to sex. Ozon’s —
and Fassbinder’s — clear intention is to show that the tediousness of a
gay relationship is much akin to the everyday tiresome nature of
long-term hetero relationships.
As the film progresses, Leopold’s vanity and desire for conquest and
domination gradually consumes Franz’s natural subservience (we get the
impression his ex-girlfriend wore the pants in that union as well).
Franz soon reaches a boiling point and nearly moves out. Then Leopold’s
ex-girlfriend Vera (American actress Anna Thomson) shows up after 10
years, followed by Franz’s ex-girlfriend Anna (Ludivine Sagnier) who
returns with the intention of reclaiming Franz. It’s here that Giraudeau
goes to work. Handsome and irresistible, his Leopold devours
relationships in cannibalistic fashion, like a sexual Hannibal Lecter.
Like many of Fassbinder’s films, “Water Drops on Burning Rocks” equates
sex with power, and if power corrupts, then sex corrupts absolutely. So
there are ideas here that fans will recognize and are interesting in
their bare nature. But Ozon’s adaptation of Fassbinder’s play doesn’t
advance these ideas, and the assumption here is that the original source
material is the problem. That may be one reason Fassbinder himself
considered this the work of a 19-year-old artist still discovering
himself, and thus not worthy of public exhibition.
But there’s another, more inherent problem. In this “enlightened” age,
when homosexuality is generally accepted and (almost) tolerated, though
much prejudice remains, the idea of a gay man “turning” a heterosexual
is no longer shocking. Gay films are now a vibrant part of the industry,
often attracting international funding and are numerous and popular
enough to spawn lesbian and gay film festivals around the world. So the
prevailing emotion is, “big deal.” We’ve been there, seen that, and
despite Giraudeau’s solid work, Ozon’s film is for Fassbinder fans only.
[G. Allen Johnson is a film critic for San Francisco Examiner. He has
also written for the Bloomington Herald Times, Pasadena Star-News, Los
Angeles Daily News and Indianapolis Star.]