François Ozon, one of France’s most popular living filmmakers, is nothing if not prolific. Since breaking out in a big way with his first feature “Sitcom” in 1998, Ozon has released a film a year, displaying his versatility in style and his passion for strong leading ladies.
Among the highlights: he worked with Charlotte Rampling in the ghost story “Under the Sand,” paired her up with Ludivine Sagnier in the psychosexual thriller “Swimming Pool,” cast British beauty Romola Garai as the lead in the period romance “Angel” and gathered a crop of France’s finest actresses for the murder-mystery musical “8 Women.”
His latest, the ’70s-set feminist farce “Potiche,” marks Ozon’s second collaboration with the venerable Catherine Deneuve. In “Potiche,” a free adaptation of the hit comic play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy, Deneuve plays Suzanne, a domesticated ‘trophy housewife’ (‘potiche’ in French) who breaks free from her husband’s grip when she takes over his umbrella factory after the workers go on strike and take him hostage.
indieWIRE met with Ozon in Manhattan when he was in town for the film’s New York premiere during Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.
“Potiche” marks your third film adaptation of a play, following “Water Drops On Burning Rocks” and “8 Women.” This one seemed the least stage bound of the three. Was that intentional?
“8 Women” was a story about women who are trapped in a non-naturalist place. As Hitchcock says, ‘When you adapt a good play, you don’t need to escape from the situation.’ So for “8 Women” I didn’t feel the need to escape from the house. I wanted to stylize the theatrical feelings. For “Water Drops,” it’s impossible for the film’s protagonist to go inside. It ends with a women who tries to open the window but can’t. It was important for me to stay stage bound in these two films. I’m not afraid to do so. It’s a way to distance yourself from what you’re watching.
With “Potiche,” I felt I had to follow the character of Suzanne Pujol as she escapes from her confinements. She starts out in the house as the perfect housewife in an artificial world. She then leaves it. We discover the world with her. The idea was to adapt my mis-en-scene to the evolution of her character.
What did you mean when you said you want to keep a distance between the audience and the film?
It’s my Brecht side. Film is just about manipulation. When you’re a director you have to accept that you manipulate people. For me it’s important to give the opportunity to the audience to keep a distance – to have questions, to keep a kind of space for thinking. For me it’s always difficult when I see a film and I feel taken a certain way; like many American movies, they don’t want you to think. They just want you to follow the story and at the end you feel a little bit trapped.
I know it’s not good in a commercial way to do what I do. But for me it’s important. For example, in “Potiche” there’s a dance scene between Catherine and Gerard. It’s totally artificial – they look right into the camera. But I think it works because there’s truth in the situation and truth behind the bodies of these two actors who are over 60-years-old and are national icons in France.
How was it working with them together? They’ve collaborated many times before, but never with you.
It was a dream for me. It’s a dream for all French cinephiles to see these two actors together. We watched them grow old through film. They’re like my parents. We French have a lot of tenderness for them. When they act together there’s something special between them. They’re like our Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.
On set, did you step back and let them do their ‘thing,’ or did you give them a lot of direction?
I directed them of course, even though they’re legends.
Deneuve got really involved with “Potiche” early in the process even before the script was finalized, correct?
I needed to have her on board from the very beginning. If she wouldn’t have said yes, I wouldn’t have made the film. In France she was the only one to do the part for the film I envisioned.
Have you worked this closely with an actress before? Was Charlotte Rampling attached to “Under the Sand” while you were writing the script?
No. Very often I don’t have someone in mind when I’m writing the script. This marks the first time. I knew the play for a very long time. I needed time to know how to adapt it and how to make it real for me.
How collaborative was the process with Deneuve?
She followed the production aspects, the casting…I said to her, ‘I have to find you a husband, kids and a lover.’ I asked her what she thought of certain names. She just reacted. She never said, ‘I don’t want to work with him/her,’ those kind of things. She isn’t a diva. She just wanted to be involved and find the best partners to make it successful.
We spoke about the costumes, about the period. She gave me one idea: she said, ‘But I am a grandmother in the film and we never see the grandchildren.’ So I put the kids in the film. They were not in the play.
The interview is continued on page two.
How did your experience working with her on “Potiche” differ from “8 Women”?
“8 Women” was quite difficult because I was working with eight actresses at the same time. If you see the film, you’ll notice there are many scenes with all women together at one time. For “Potiche” it was easier working with a smaller cast in most scenes. I didn’t realize it was going to be so challenging before taking on “8 Women.” I thought it’d be impossible to get the cast I did for “8 Women,” and when I did I thought, ‘This is going to be a nightmare!’ But actually the difficulty was not woman to woman, but more in my relationship to each one. I had to be neutral and democratic with each one. It was political.
Do you see “Potiche” as your feminist film?
Yes, I think so. It’s a film about the liberation of a woman who finds her place in society. But I think it’s a feminist film in a very light way. Very often I don’t like to have messages in my film. I’m an artist not a politician. Very often when you want to say something, it’s better to say something in a comedy. In a drama it can get heavy.
Where does this passion for making such female centric films come from?
I love strong women in movies. I think very often women are more interesting to follow in film because they go through evolutions. Very often women deal with their emotions and feelings in film. Men are more action orientated.
Do you feel more comfortable on set directing women than men?
Yes. It’s easier. There are less problems.
Why is that?
Because men have bigger egos…To be a good actor you have to be very feminine. Many actors don’t want to accept that side. They have to control. There are also less good parts for women, and women know that. So when they get involved in a good role, they really go for it and take risks.
Your films span so many different genres. You’ve done musicals, period dramas, psycho-sexual thrillers. Why have you never stuck to one specific area?
That comes from my tastes as a cinephile. I belong to a generation of directors who never want to repeat themselves. My films are the reflections of my tastes. Because I try to do a film a year, I don’t like to repeat myself. I think there are some links between my films, but it’s not in the genre and the style.
Do you ever get exhausted? You’ve released a film a year for the past several years. In 2009 you released two.
It’s not exhausting to shoot; what is exhausting is to travel and promote the films. To shoot a film is such a pleasure for me. Sometimes of course it’s difficult. But it’s always full of energy. It’s passion, to make movies.
What’s next for you?
I will begin shooting in July a kind of thriller set in a school. That’s all I can say.
Click here to view a previously published report of the “Potiche” press conference at last year’s Toronto International FIlm Festival where the film screened.