Cinema: Comme ce n'est pas shocking!

Sitcom (18)
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The Independent Culture
He didn't exactly wake up one morning, like Byron, to find himself famous, but the young French film-maker Francois Ozon made such an extraordinary impact in his native country with two allegedly very disturbing shorts (A Summer Dress and See the Sea) that local producers were practically begging him to let them finance his first feature. The result is Sitcom. And though it pains me to say so, particularly in my own first review of the new year, there's no getting away from the sad truth. He's blown it.

I use the word "allegedly" not just because I myself haven't seen these shorts, but also because Sitcom is so consistently undisturbing, so unutterably tame, it's hard to imagine what all the fuss could have been about. If I didn't know better, my guess would have been that this new film had been made by some snotty, smart-alecky 14-year-old who had read his Sade and Bataille but whose conception of the bourgeois was as dated and simplistic as his notions of how to go about epater-ing it. Bunuel's name, naturally, has been cited. Well, all I can say is that there may be scenes in the film vaguely reminiscent of Bunuel, the mood and setting may be evocative of Bunuel, there may even be situations that would have tickled Bunuel's fancy. But, oh dear me no, Bunuel it most certainly isn't.

Because Sitcom arrives on our shores preceded by this much-bandied-about reference (among others, as we shall see), diminishing returns have set in even before it begins. This is the one - as we say when we already know everything that's going to happen in a film by the first 10 minutes - about an affluent middle-class family (fiftysomething father and mother, twenty-something son and daughter, plus Spanish maid) whose various repressed libidos are liberated by the irruption of an inexplicably cathartic antibody into their cosy enclosure of material comfort and ideological complacency. In this instance, it's a white laboratory rat that the placid, proverb-spouting father brings home on a whim.

At which point, the references just sit up and beg to be ticked off. Under the rat's enigmatic influence the son suddenly declares his homosexuality at a very Chabrolian dinner-table; then, seduced by the maid's black husband, he stage-manages a series of wild orgies in his kitschily appointed bedroom (think John Waters or Pedro Almodovar). For some unmotivated reason the daughter hurls herself out of an upstairs window and, now a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, indulges in sadomasochistic foreplay with her long-suffering boyfriend (Bunuel, but also Marco Ferreri). Brother and sister (played by real-life siblings - comme c'est shocking!) start to take baths together, while the decorously prim mother turns to cross-generational incest as a form of psychotherapy for both her son and herself (Louis Malle's Le Souffle au coeur). As for the father, he finally pops the rat into the microwave and serves it up for his supper (Robert Aldrich's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). Then he serenely guns down his whole daffy brood in what turns out to be, wouldn't you know, a dream sequence (Bunuel again) - though who precisely is dreaming the sequence, or why, is anyone's guess.

You get the picture. And even if you aren't conversant with the models for Ozon's masturbatory fantasy (I left out Pasolini's Teorema), you're still likely to get it, since the template has long been in the public domain. It used to be tough filming narratives of sexual transgression because of the fossilised rigidities of the censorship system; it's even tougher nowadays for the inverse reason that the boundaries of what's possible to show on a cinema screen have been so extended of late, it's hard enough just attaining, let alone overstepping, them. In addition, the crucial element of surprise is virtually non-existent. Once it's been saddled with the kind of insanely respectable household to which we're introduced in the film's opening scenes, the plot-line has simply nowhere else to go.

There's the fact, too, perhaps, that the fastidious French cinema has never been entirely comfortable with anarchic social satire. Bunuel was a Spaniard, after all; and, with the exception of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, his very late French productions now look self-derivative and even self-parodic. Another French-backed example of the species, Nagisa Oshima's Max, My Love, a faintly queasy-making curiosity in which the fragrant Charlotte Rampling is besotted by a monkey (The Discreet Charm of the Chimpanzee?), was a disappointing coda to the director's infinitely superior Japanese work. Actually, if you feel like being offended in a genuinely bracing sort of way, go see There's Something About Mary.

Ultimately, the real perversity of Sitcom lies in the matter of its visual style. Most first films suffer from a stylistic overload: uncertain as to whether they'll be given a second chance, their directors tend to squeeze into them every idea they've ever had about the cinema. Ozon's mise-en- scene, by contrast, is bland and verveless, without a single interesting formal conceit, a single memorable composition. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt by assuming that this debilitating flatness can be ascribed to his deliberate mimicry of the prosy textures of TV sitcoms, but it still seems, on the part of a tyro film-maker, a bizarre repudiation of the medium's expressive possibilities.

Watching the performers' increasingly forlorn endeavours to shock us with their sexual jiggery-pokery, I diverted myself by formulating a frivolous little theory of the cinema: to wit, the difference between a good film and a bad film is the difference between masturbating with the right hand and masturbating with the left hand. Sitcom, alas, is a left-hand job. For all its strenuous huffing and puffing, it never quite comes.