The Films of François Ozon
See the Sea
Water Drops on Burning Rocks (July 25/04)
Water Drops on Burning Rocks is yet another bizarre effort from French director François Ozon, and though it's not exactly good, there's something oddly compelling about the whole thing (the same can be said of all his movies, really). Based on the play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (!), the film details several weeks in the lives of gay couple Leopold (Bernard Giraudeau) and Franz (Malik Zidi). Complications arise when their respective ex-lovers enter the picture, played by Ludivine Sagnier and Anna Levine. The film is structured in several acts (Ozon seems to be taking the whole adapted-from-a-play thing a little too seriously), with the various characters undergoing changes that range from minute to substantial. It's an expectedly talky and claustrophobic movie (the entire thing takes place in Leopold's apartment), and there are some genuinely intriguing moments. Ozon can't resist adding that surrealistic touch, though, something that's never more obvious than when the film briefly transforms into a musical (!!)
Under the Sand
8 Women (September 2/02)
François Ozon's 8 Women, a campy murder mystery/musical, is about as far away from his last movie (Under the Sand) as one could imagine. That film dealt with one woman's unimaginable grief after losing her husband, and was as somber and serious as the subject matter indicates. With 8 Women, Ozon's created a film that's light and fluffy that, though it does go on a bit too long, proves that he can deftly handle different genres.
Set sometime in the 1950s, the film's opening credits suitably set the tone for what's to follow. Glittery and flowery, they're completely over-the-top and entirely reminiscent of the sort of '50s melodrama that Douglas Sirk was famous for. But Ozon's not content to simply throw in contemporary themes into a retro structure; 8 Women works as an effective musical, with each character given the opportunity to sing a song. The storyline is equally old school: The sole male in a family dominated by women is found murdered one morning, and the remainder of the film is rife with revelations, petty arguments, and even a little romance.
Ozon has assembled an amazing cast of past and present French actresses, led by Danielle Darrieux - whose first movie was made in 1931 and has since appeared in over 100 features. Darrieux plays Mamy, the matriarch of the family, though her senior status doesn't prevent the others from suspecting her at one point. Her two daughters-in-law Gaby and Pierette (Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant) have never gotten along, due mostly to Pierette's jealously of Gaby's wealth and marriage. Mamy's own daughter Augustine (Isabelle Huppert) is a bitter and sarcastic spinster, who pretty much suspects everyone in the house of doing the deed. More daughters appear in the form of Gaby's children, Suzon and Catherine (Virginie Ledoyen and Ludivine Sagnier), both of whom take on the role of detective in trying to determine who the killer is. Rounding out the cast are a couple of servants (Firmine Richard and Emmanuelle Beart), the latter of which has quite a few secrets of her own.
The storyline itself isn't anything special - it's the sort of thing that Agatha Christie cornered the market on decades ago - but the impressive cast and catchy songs just about make 8 Women worth watching. The movie's based on a play by Robert Thomas, and it shows. The entire film takes place in this overblown house, and (for a while, anyway) it's entertaining enough due to the frantic pace employed by Ozon. For pure camp value, there are a lot of elements in 8 Women that warrant a look; the inclusion of some decidedly contemporary themes into this old-school atmosphere will certainly elicit laughter from those familiar with the '50s melodrama. But the novelty eventually wears off, and the constant fighting becomes somewhat repetitive and it becomes impossible to even care who the murderer is. Still, there are the songs, all of which are very well done and incredibly catchy. And though the choreography that accompanies the songs is a little stiff (putting it kindly), each number brings up the energy level of the film considerably. And who knew Catherine Deneuve could sing so beautifully?
Swimming Pool (July 10/03)
Swimming Pool marks François Ozon's third movie since the turn of the century - following Under the Sand and 8 Women - and like the two that preceeded it, this film is well-made but ultimately fairly dull and forgettable. Swimming Pool, which follows crime writer Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) as she arrives at a country estate and encounters a sassy teenager (Ludivine Sagnier's Julie), moves at a snail's pace, and for a while, it works. The character of Sarah Morton is a fascinating one, especially considering how unlikeable she is, and watching her interact with various folks is undeniably quite interesting. The first time we see her, she curtly dismisses a fan by insisting she's not the famous author the fan thinks she is. It's clear right from the get-go that Sarah is terribly uncomfortable in her own skin, and Ozon should be commended for making such a prickly character the center of attention (for a while, anyway). When Julie eventually shows up, it's not surprising that Sarh initially hates the girl, as she represents everything Sarah's uncomfortable with (including flamboyant sexuality and outspokenness). Those early scenes involving the interaction between Sarah and Julie are easily the film's most effective, due in no small part to some wonderfully subtle acting from Rampling and Sagnier. Both have previously appeared in Ozon movies (Rampling in Under the Sand and Sagnier in 8 Women), and it's clear that Ozon knows precisely how to use each actress. Rampling is essentially playing a variation on the character she inhabited in Under the Sand, except Sarah is closed off from the world because she chooses to be (whereas her Under the Sand character was unable to get past her grief). And as the story progresses, and Sarah becomes more open and communicative, Rampling proves that she's just as adept playing eagerness as she is irritation. Likewise, Sagnier is very effective in this seemingly one-dimensional role; the character of Julie is all about brazenness and in-your-face attitude, but Sagnier never allows her to become an annoyance. Indeed, she becomes a figure we almost feel sorry for, and Sagnier does a superb job of keeping the audience on its toes. But as good as the performances are, they're not enough to keep things interesting as Ozon starts piling on dream sequences and refuses to introduce a concrete plot. This is the kind of movie that would have worked far better as a short, but it's been stretched out to 102 minutes, and the majority of the film's second half feels like padding. While it was gratifying to see Rampling's character finally cut loose, the murder mystery that inhabites the latter part of the film is just tiresome. It's the sort of thing we've seen countless times before, and given how fully Ozon has developed these two characters, it's really a shame that the movie becomes as silly as it does. And then there's the conclusion, which purports to be a twist ending, but leaves too many questions unanswered to really be satisfying. Swimming Pool contains a couple of great performances, but the half-baked mystery that dominates the second half prevents the movie from becoming anything more than a semi-entertaining showcase for a pair of fantastic actresses.
Time to Leave
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Potiche (July 30/11)
Based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, Potiche follows Catherine Deneuve's Suzanne Pujol, the trophy wife of a successful businessman (Fabrice Luchini's Robert), as she reluctantly agrees to take the reins of her husband's umbrella company - with Suzanne's newfound power inevitably shaking her out of her drab, housebound day-to-day existence. Filmmaker François Ozon has infused Potiche with a pervasively lighthearted feel that's reflected in everything from the comedically-twinged performances to its unapologetically garish sets, with the heavily-stylized atmosphere certainly proving instrumental at initially capturing the viewer's interest. The preponderance of likeable characters goes a long way towards allaying the relentless quirkiness of Ozon's modus operandi, and there's little doubt that the film's complete and utter lack of laughs is, at the outset, not as problematic as one might've feared. (It's worth noting that Potiche, though billed as a comedy, boasts only one genuinely hilarious moment, as Robert delivers a truly remarkable spit take after receiving some unexpected news from Suzanne.) There comes a point, however, at which the movie begins to demonstrably run out of steam, with the progressively uninvolving atmosphere compounded by an overlong running time and an erratic sense of pacing. Ozon's reluctance to introduce elements of a dramatic or authentic nature effectively cements Potiche's downfall, as the blithe atmosphere becomes nothing short of oppressive once the film enters its nigh interminable third act. The end result is a failed farce that seems unlikely to please even Ozon's most ardent fans, although, to be fair, it's hard to deny the effectiveness of Deneuve's consistently watchable turn as the movie's familiar protagonist.