Francois Ozon's Cinema of Perversity
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 7.19.00) — When French filmmaker Francois Ozon comes to the United States, you’d be advised to take notice. In 1998, his astounding debut featurette “See the Sea” accompanied by the equally well-crafted short “A Summer Dress” marked the arrival of a fresh young turk, drawing comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock and Claude Chabrol. In 1999, his sadomasochistic family “Sitcom” hit U.S. screens, again causing provocation and signaling the presence of a new auteur. This year, Ozon has truly outdone himself: two perverse, delightful and disturbing features, “Criminal Lovers” and “Water Drops on Burning Rocks,” are arriving in the States within just a week of each other.
Shot just 7 months apart, for budgets under 2 million dollars each, the movies continue to establish Ozon’s reputation as a filmmaking “enfant terrible” — with violence, sex, and manipulative characters his tools of the trade. “Criminal Lovers” stars Natacha Regnier (“The Dream Life of Angels“) and Jeremie Renier (“La Promesse“) as two teens that commit murder, then find themselves trapped in a secluded cabin at the mercy of its ogre-like inhabitant, played by Miki Manojlovic (“Set me Free,” “Black Cat, White Cat“). In a very different tale of sexual chicanery, “Water Drops on Burning Rocks,” adapted from an early never-produced play written by German filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a 50-year-old businessman falls into a domestic relationship with a fresh-faced young man; and all becomes increasingly complicated when their ex-girlfriends show up.
Ozon has already edited his next feature, “Sous le Sable” (“Under the Sand”), which stars Charlotte Rampling and Bruno Kremer, and is destined for a Fall festival premiere. How does the 32-year-old keep up his prolific output? “In 1970, Fassbinder made 7 films and 3 plays,” he answers. “So I have some work to do.” indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman speaks with Ozon about style, irony and manipulating the audience.
indieWIRE: So I read that “Criminal Lovers” came out of some strange marriage of tabloid news headlines and the “Hansel and Gretel” fairytale; can you talk about putting those together?
Francois Ozon: In fact, I find that fairytales and current events news stories have a lot in common, because of their dark side and horrible details. So I didn’t want to follow the current course of French cinema and take current events and do a classic, socially responsible treatment, as [Bertrand] Tavernier might do. I wanted to go in another direction. I wanted to make a genre film and use the fairytale means to reveal the characters in a different way.
iW: In the beginning of the film, it felt very like this French natural-realism, like “The Dream Life of Angels.” But as it progresses, it gets more stylized, more like “See the Sea” and “Sitcom.” Did you intend for the style to evolve?
Ozon: In fact, the story was all reorganized in the editing room. In the first draft, there were two parts, one was the murder of the boy and the second part was the escape into the woods, and the scenes at the cabin. So in fact, in the original draft, it was clear that the first part was more naturalistic because it took place in naturalistic settings, a school, the characters’ homes.
iW: The music in the film made me laugh. Those big, swelling symphonic moments. It’s ironic, yes?
Ozon: Yes, but at the same time, I think it’s moving. It’s the two, in fact.
iW: Do you think you can subvert romanticism at the same time as indulging in it?
Ozon: I think it depends on the mind of the spectator, because there are some days when you see a film and you can dive right into the emotional train of the film and have it wash over you and at other times, you’ll see the whole film with an ironic, jaundiced eye.
iW: And your intention?
Ozon: I knew I was playing a grotesque chord in this, but even in the grotesque, there can be something moving. So I think many filmmakers know what good taste is, and stay within the bounds of good taste and good rules. But I think you have to push those envelopes and try something that might not work as well in a classical way.
iW: In “Water Drops on Burning Rocks,” there is a similar terror and comedy, there’s more overtly horror conventions in “Criminal Lovers,” but even in “Water Drops,” there is a similar play. I laughed in both.
Ozon: You have no heart.
iW: But the music, for example, in “Water Drops” is also ironic in similar ways.
Ozon: Not always. I guess it could be considered ironic when they are dancing.
iW: What about this tinkley music box sound?
Ozon: I really liked that music and I never had that as a child, myself. It really marks the moment of sexuality in a child-like way.
iW: It seems like both films are dealing with people as children. Everyone is at a very early stage of sexual development.
Ozon: Yes, certainly in “Criminal Lovers,” but in “Water Drops,” it’s a bit more perverse than that. It’s closer to sadomasochism.
iW: You made “Water Drops” a very different-looking film than your previous works.
Ozon: I wanted to keep theatricality in the dialogue, and make sure people realize they are watching a play that’s thoroughly written. That’s why I framed many scenes as proscenium, static, and wide-shot. I wanted to work with the notion of distancing the audience to a certain degree. Because, perhaps, this story is emotionally very close to me, and I wanted to put some distance between myself and the story. I think theatricality in cinema provokes an interesting reaction in the spectator. I like to see films that put into question: am I in the cinema, am I in the theater, am I identifying with these people or not? The theatricality of the play will open those questions every time.
iW: Did you feel shooting in that theatrical way restrictive?
Ozon: I like to impose constraints in order to work. A project without constraints, I can