Francois Ozon: Monsieur extreme

Murder, masochism, incest... it's all in a day's shooting for Francois Ozon. But at 37, is France's 'gay enfant terrible' mellowing? Or is his new film '5x2' darker than it seems? Jonathan Romney investigates
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The Independent Culture

Not many film directors experience the advantage - or the burden - of having a manifesto for a surname. François Ozon does: the French press has always made much of the homophony between Ozon and osons ("let us dare"). With seven features and countless shorts to his name, the precocious Ozon, 37, remains one of France's most audacious filmmakers, though his daring is by no means consistent. You don't quite think of him as waving the flag of transgression from the barricades, alongside Gaspar Noé or Catherine Breillat. Rather, from beginnings as a gay enfant terrible, Ozon has gradually come to represent a discreet, even classical form of provocation that contrives to rub along quite nicely with the mainstream. Over the years, his films have dealt with murder, masochism, incest, human-to-rat metamorphosis and every imaginable sexuality. Now, however, his status as a born-again traditionalist (of sorts) has been confirmed by his latest and most accomplished feature, 5x2, a sober portrait of

Not many film directors experience the advantage - or the burden - of having a manifesto for a surname. François Ozon does: the French press has always made much of the homophony between Ozon and osons ("let us dare"). With seven features and countless shorts to his name, the precocious Ozon, 37, remains one of France's most audacious filmmakers, though his daring is by no means consistent. You don't quite think of him as waving the flag of transgression from the barricades, alongside Gaspar Noé or Catherine Breillat. Rather, from beginnings as a gay enfant terrible, Ozon has gradually come to represent a discreet, even classical form of provocation that contrives to rub along quite nicely with the mainstream. Over the years, his films have dealt with murder, masochism, incest, human-to-rat metamorphosis and every imaginable sexuality. Now, however, his status as a born-again traditionalist (of sorts) has been confirmed by his latest and most accomplished feature, 5x2, a sober portrait of a marriage that sees Ozon knowingly, and more than convincingly, try on the mantle of Ingmar Bergman.

A note of caution to cinemagoers who might have seen the trailer for 5x2: it's a lesson in never falling for the sales pitch. From the montaged embraces, simmering looks, beach sunsets, and shots of Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi's swirling wedding gown, you may be expecting a soft, swan's-down confection, a highbrow Chocolat. In reality, 5x2 is stark and chillingly composed - the history of a couple's inexorable collapse recounted backwards in five episodes, from divorce to first meeting. That the film ends exactly where the shoddiest paperback romances do - with a postcard sunset - is a mark not of cynicism, but of cruel, acute intelligence.

Ozon was inspired by the realisation that he knew few people whose relationships had lasted more than five years. "I wanted to ask why people find it difficult to maintain a relationship for 10, 15 or 20 years, like our parents did. Because the story was about something ending, I wrote the end first. Then I realised that was the starting point."

Telling the story in reverse order allowed Ozon to scatter clues to the marriage's failure for us to collect backwards - like following a trail of pebbles in a forest, as he puts it. We've seen the reverse structure applied to the thriller (Memento) and, in Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, to the po-faced contention that "time destroys everything"; Ozon brings a simpler, though no less caustic touch to the technique. He acknowledges two models in particular: Harold Pinter's play Betrayal and Jane Campion's 1986 TV film Two Friends. Otherwise, his key references in diagnosing the conjugal malaise are Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Maurice Pialat's Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won't Grow Old Together); Ozon says he could easily have borrowed either title. "What I love about the Bergman film is that he conducts a sort of autopsy - he goes where it hurts."

5x2 may be classical in tone, but it remains experimental in method. It was shot in reverse chronological order, and neither Ozon nor the actors knew where they were heading. He started by filming the first three sections, then stopped for four months to edit what he had and write the rest.

Ozon has a way of sounding very casual about such details, of making his work sound terribly easy - and you have to assume he does find it easy, given his prodigious output. Since his full-length debut Sitcom (1998), he has made a feature a year, each totally different. Before Sitcom, Ozon had forged a reputation with his shorts, and cemented it with Regarde la mer (1997), a quietly chilling one-hour vignette about a young mother's encounter with a taciturn female backpacker: it has all the pins-and-needles discomfort of prime Polanski, despite being shot with pristine cleanness and a distinct absence of stylistic or emotional rhetoric.

After that, Sitcom came as a disappointment: a black farce about a bourgeois family embracing every conceivable type of murderous, incestuous, sado-masochistic misbehaviour. It was charmingly, nastily witty, but really an overextended squib, and people expected more. The follow-up, Criminal Lovers - two teenage killers fall into the hands of a fairy-tale ogre - got the critical and commercial thumbs down, but then Ozon dealt an unexpected ace in Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000), an adaptation of an early Fassbinder play. This louche, poised four-hander - about a middle-aged roué, his young lover, the latter's ingenue girlfriend and the roué's transsexual ex - was a smartly stylised affair that plays brilliantly with theatrical stasis and the claustrophobic horrors of early-Seventies Bavarian interior design.

For many admirers, Ozon went adrift with 8 Femmes (2002), a singing, dancing, all-female whodunit that was his tribute to George Cukor and Douglas Sirk; an uncharitable Almodóvar might have sued. 8 Femmes seems less a film than a conceptual stunt, with its cast culled from several generations of French screen divas - from doyenne Danielle Darrieux, through Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert, to his own discovery Ludivine Sagnier. "Was it tough? Not really, because with eight actresses together, the egos cancelled each other out. They knew I was going to play with their images and their rivalries. They weren't virgins, they knew what to expect." The French public loved the impertinence and the film had 3.5 million admissions. "8 Femmes and Sitcom are just for fun. I see them as my doll's house films."

But the film that proved Ozon wasn't entirely ruled by playfulness was Sous le sable (Under the Sand, 2000), a devastatingly spare drama about a woman who refuses to acknowledge her husband's death. As well as a soberly harrowing study of mourning, it's one of the rare films to look at female sexuality past 40, and made a revelatory vehicle for the then overlooked Charlotte Rampling, who owes her rediscovery in no small part to Ozon. She worked with him again on the less impressive Swimming Pool (2003), a mechanical psychodrama in which she played Sarah Morton, a sexually and creatively blocked English mystery writer. Ozon had Ruth Rendell in mind, and with sublime arrogance wrote to the grande dame to ask if she'd consider writing the story that Rampling struggles with in the film. "She wrote me a very English letter saying that she didn't need me to get inspiration for her books. I showed it to Charlotte, who said that Sarah Morton would have reacted in exactly the same way."

There's an odd mix in Ozon of the studious lycée boy and the ink-stained classroom rebel. In person, he's clean-cut, crisply good-looking, politely reserved: you suspect that his industriousness is the fruit of a chilly self-control. He was born in Paris into "a rather intellectual milieu", he says; his mother was a French teacher, his father a biologist. He had a Catholic education, went through a pious phase, then rebelled: "I was a very turbulent child." He tells a story about a revelation in primary school. "I had a schoolmistress who always gave me bad marks, and even tore up one of my essays. Once she was ill and a much younger teacher came to replace her, and I got the top mark. She thought my essay was funny, insolent, everything the other one had hated. That's when I realised I could provoke very aggressive or very positive reactions." (What the hostile teacher had objected to, in fact, was that François had written a caricature of the teacher herself.)

In his teens, Ozon wanted to act but suffered terrible stage fright. Instead, he started experimenting with his father's Super-8 camera. He went on to make, he estimates, some 30 Super-8s between 1986 and 1990. "I found my voice early," he says coolly. "I never had any doubts about it."

Although he was originally seen specifically as a gay director, Ozon's shorts cover the range of confused or fluid sexual identities. Scènes de lit (Bedroom Scenes) is a collection of sketches, variously tender, jovial or downright scabrous. "I get the most pleasure out of filming bedroom scenes," he says, "Two characters in bed face to face with their desire - that's what cinema's good at, stripping characters naked in moral and physical terms." In the 1996 short Une robe d'été, a young gay man finds his sexual possibilities multiplied by putting on a skimpy summer frock. It's an innocent fantasy - an "idyll", Ozon calls it - calculated to get viewers of either sex, or any inclination, agitated. In fact, many male heterosexual viewers reacted violently. "That's what you get when people aren't sure about their own sexual identity."

No one's sexuality in Ozon's films is ever straightforward, nor is his own implied sexual position as a film-maker. "A director has to be polymorphously perverse," he says. "I'm agreeably surprised to find that, given my own sexuality, I can project myself into other types of desire."

Ozon is similarly slippery as a film- maker. He is probably Europe's most prolific younger director, along with Michael Winterbottom, with whom he shares not only his elasticity of style, but also a certain opaque impersonality. Ozon likes to complete a film, then move straight on to the next, but he claims his work doesn't rule his life. "A film is - what? - two months' shooting, two months' editing, and then it's just small things. I work pretty intensely six months of the year, then I have plenty of time for other things." He's certainly confident - you might think arrogant, if he weren't so matter-of-fact. "I never have any problem writing stories. The problem is afterwards - having the will to spend two years working on the same film."

It's a little unnerving to hear how casual, even detached, Ozon can sound talking about his work. "Once a film is finished," he says, "you can't change anything, so it doesn't belong to me any more. I prefer to hand it over to the viewer. Besides, they're just films. If a film doesn't work, there'll always be another one." He doesn't hold with the image of the director as star, and feels an affinity with the Hollywood professionals of the 1940s, working on the studio assembly line. But even Ozon admits, "I'm not sure I can carry on at this rhythm. What's hard is not making a film a year, it's everything around it, all the promotional work."

Films such as Sous le sable and 5x2 have marked Ozon's transition from shock-jock to art-house sophisticate who can pull in a more conservative audience and hit it with some icy surprises. I recently heard two young French filmmakers spitting bile over Ozon, denouncing him as a sell-out - not least, as a gay man making a film about a heterosexual couple.

In all his work, Ozon says, "there's a desire to provoke. My films unsettle, and my earlier ones do that more obviously. But 5x2 is also very violent in unsettling the classic image of the heterosexual couple. I'm tending more to classicism in form, because it affects people more deeply. There's still a violence in my films, but now it's getting across better."

'5x2' (15) is released on Friday

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