François Ozon: Me, myself and Catherine

The young French director had a terrible time with Catherine Deneuve on 8 Women - she wanted to mother him, but he wouldn't let her. François Ozon tells Ryan Gilbey why making his latest film, Swimming Pool, came as such a relief
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The Independent Culture

Seven movies in seven years qualifies as a prolific work rate for a film-maker, especially once you factor in all the schlepping to far-flung festivals to hawk your wares. François Ozon, though, is looking good on it. Doubtless it helps that he started directing shortly after he started shaving (he's 35, and made his first short nearly 20 years ago). Even so, it's usually only actors who look this sunny. He bounds into his publicist's London office in a striped top, blazer and baggy jeans, with a tan that's just this side of boastful, and a head of fluffy hair through which Hugh Grant would be proud to run his comb. As well as this healthy glow, Ozon has brought with him something else he didn't have when we last met two years ago: a firm grasp of English. A translator sits in on our interview, but she must be wishing she'd brought her knitting.

Ozon plunged into the language to enable him to make Swimming Pool, a thriller that a friend accurately described to me as "a kinky Eric Rohmer". It is his first feature not to be filmed entirely in French, or entirely in France: the movie opens in dingy London, where the prim, lemon-faced novelist Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) is wrestling with writer's block. As a pick-me-up, Sarah accepts her publisher's offer to use his Provence holiday home. But will her creativity survive the bawdy glare of his daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), who drags home a different conquest every night? Will Sarah loosen up with the impressively moustachioed waiter at the local café? And what is so creepy about that swimming pool?

"I wanted to do a self-portrait," explains Ozon, "and I thought it would be simpler if I projected myself into the character of a British female mystery writer. That's so far from me that it made it easier to be lucid and humorous about myself. Sarah is like my double. She gets jealous when her publisher shows affection towards another writer, and if I am a bit unhappy it's easy for me to feel like that about, say, my producers. Also, she's very successful but she doesn't care - she just wants love and tenderness like anyone else."

The scene in which Sarah snaps at a fan who recognises her on the Underground - "I am not the person you think I am," she fumes - was also lifted from life. "That happened to me after my first film was released," he shudders. "I didn't like the experience at all. I was on the Metro early in the morning, not quite awake, and someone said, 'You are François Ozon!' The train was full, everyone looked round. I said, 'No, it's not me,' and got off. It felt horrible."

Fans of Ozon's work will be accustomed to spotting allusions to other movies; a less sensual film-maker could be accused of having celluloid running through his veins instead of blood. His 1998 feature debut, Sitcom, paid homage to Buñuel and John Waters. Criminal Lovers (1999) contained, among other things, an explicit sex scene witnessed by the furry woodland extras from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000) was adapted from a Fassbinder play, and had the penal claustrophobia of that German master's bleakest films, while Under the Sand (2001) took the crust of L'Avventura and dusted it with Chabrol-esque chills. Watching his last and most lucrative picture, the musical whodunit 8 Women (2002), the eye could scarcely keep pace with the abundant references to Minnelli, Sirk, Truffaut et al.

Swimming Pool is different. This time he is paying homage chiefly to just one film-maker - François Ozon. "I'm sorry," he smiles, "but there are lots of references here to my other work. My film 8 Women was about actresses and about other films. I was always there for the actresses, because it was a film about their glory. I had to forget myself. After I had finished it, I needed to come back to me."

For starters, the opening shot of Swimming Pool is a mirror-image of the start of Under the Sand, while the scenario of two women - one English, one French - cooped up in a house and unable to reach by telephone the absentee father figure, was the basis for his masterful 1997 thriller See the Sea. Then there is the image of water, which is once again at the centre of the action, as it has been in many of Ozon's films since the 1996 short A Summer Dress, in which a boy went skinny-dipping only to find his clothes gone when he returned to the beach. His sexual identity followed.

It's sweet that Ozon made Swimming Pool to get back in touch with himself but, let's face it, his CV is not exactly short on self-portraiture. He has admitted to shades of autobiography in both the middle-aged bully and his masochistic toy-boy in Water Drops, in the young, pyjama-clad manipulator in 8 Women, and even the rat in Sitcom. In the same category is Victor, a saucy short about a teenager who kills his parents and props up their corpses on the garden swings. Job done, he pleasures himself on the lawn and forms the third point in a sweaty threesome with the maid and her tattooed boyfriend.

"That was a film about my adolescence," he says breezily. My eyes must be on stalks, because he rushes to clarify. "It was a dream of me. I didn't actually kill my parents. Only in the film." Or rather, I point out, in the films - the same scenario turns up in Sitcom, and in the early Super-8 short Photo de famille, in which Ozon's kid brother slaughters the rest of the clan. "Oh, you saw that?" he sighs, sounding rather downhearted. "Yes, it's true. Always the same obsessions. My parents didn't mind as long as I had them killed only in films, not in life."

Fathers continue to get a raw deal in his work, always either excluded or murdered, though he doesn't seem overly keen to analyse this pattern. "I would have to lie down here to talk about that," he says, resting his hand upon the couch on which we are sitting. "Each film, whether it's Victor or Swimming Pool, has been a kind of therapy for me." He denies any hostility toward his own father, a scientist who used to let him sit in on various dissections. "His work was about reproduction. In my films there is lots of sex, but no reproduction."

His recent work has shown a shift toward a predominantly female perspective. The pretty boys of his early films are nowhere to be seen, while older men exist as women's playthings. "That is true. I promise there will be a pretty boy in the next one. For me, men are like cats. And when the cats are not here, the mouses will be dancing, as we say in France." The translator explains to him that we have a similar expression in English. But I think from now on I will use Ozon's version.

He is so generous with adoring close-ups of the women in his films, like many other gay directors from Cukor to Almodóvar, that I wonder if it is something close to love for his actresses that he experiences through the camera. "I don't know if it's love. But certainly desire, or pleasure. A pleasure to film the actress, to make her more beautiful, to understand her and gain her trust." When Catherine Deneuve was promoting 8 Women, she referred repeatedly to Ozon as a director who likes actresses but not women. There was no escaping her prickly observation; I read it in three interviews, then heard it on Woman's Hour while I was doing the washing up. Ozon gives a little shiver when I mention it.

"Thank you, Catherine," he says sarcastically. "I am sure to love the actress Catherine Deneuve. I am not sure to love the woman Catherine Deneuve." The air crackles, the room falls silent. I wonder if he is waiting for a round of applause, or a chorus of jeers. "If I do a film in which she is my only star I'm sure she will be a dream, because she's an amazing woman." A short pause. "I think she likes it when a director is weak, or if he has lots of problems, because then she can be like a mother to him. But on 8 Women, I didn't give her the chance that she wanted to be my mother. I didn't need her as a mother - she was only my actress."

The more he talks about 8 Women, the more he makes this payday sound like a punishment. First there was the gossip to contend with. "We had the worst rumours. As soon as everyone in Paris knew who was in the cast, they said, 'He'll never finish it!' They thought it would not be possible to have Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert and Fanny Ardant on the same set." When I ask if the film left him exhausted, he chirps optimistically, "Only the shooting." He likens himself at the writing stage to a child with his dolls. "But when I arrived on set with the eight dolls - well, they were not dolls any more." Even more taxing was the film's phenomenal success, especially in France, where it was a hit of Amélie proportions. "It was overwhelming. I am pleased to have success and freedom, but it was too much."

He will have to get used to it: Swimming Pool attracted glowing reviews and outstanding box-office in the US last month. And he is already halfway through filming the follow-up, 5x2, which takes five scenes from the life of a married couple and arranges them counter-chronologically, à la Irréversible, starting with the divorce and winding back to the first meeting. Meanwhile, he is planning to shoot another film in this country - an adaptation of a British novel that, he says, "will be very expensive". He thinks for a moment. "Actually, I don't know if I will have the strength for that." Perhaps all his energy has been spent fielding calls from Nicole Kidman. Rumour has it that he has graduated to the top of her "directors to work with" list, now that she's ticked off Lars von Trier, Anthony Minghella and Jonathan Glazer.

Given the scrutiny that is applied to the creative process in Swimming Pool, and the film's subtle blurring of the line between life and art, it is fitting that Ozon should admit to viewing his characters as real people. "When you make a film, what you are shooting becomes as important as the events in your private life, because you are so close to those characters. I think that when I become old, I will also become mad. I will say, 'I have done all these things' " - he gestures expansively - "but they will only be the things that I have shot." He can, in that case, look forward to a depraved and entertaining senility.

'Swimming Pool' is released on 22 August