When Leopold met Vera, Franz and Anna

Water Drops on Burning Rocks (18) | François Ozon, 86 mins
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The Independent Culture

I recall reading, several years ago, a review of a film which, though a commercial failure, the reviewer in question admired as much as I did, Bill Forsyth's Housekeeping. It featured the subtle Christine Lahti as the scatty ward of a pair of teenage sisters, a role initially intended for Diane Keaton, and the critic made much of the actresses' diametrically different styles. Praising Lahti, he suggested that, "Keaton, of course, would have performed her usual ditsy number..."; or, further on in the same piece, that, "Keaton would have been unable to resist sentimentalising such a scene..."; or, later, that, "Keaton's chronic narcissism would have proved fatal to the character's credibility..." Overall, I tended to agree with his analysis, but I did think it hard that the poor woman had received such a negative review for a performance that, after all, she never actually gave.

I recall reading, several years ago, a review of a film which, though a commercial failure, the reviewer in question admired as much as I did, Bill Forsyth's Housekeeping. It featured the subtle Christine Lahti as the scatty ward of a pair of teenage sisters, a role initially intended for Diane Keaton, and the critic made much of the actresses' diametrically different styles. Praising Lahti, he suggested that, "Keaton, of course, would have performed her usual ditsy number..."; or, further on in the same piece, that, "Keaton would have been unable to resist sentimentalising such a scene..."; or, later, that, "Keaton's chronic narcissism would have proved fatal to the character's credibility..." Overall, I tended to agree with his analysis, but I did think it hard that the poor woman had received such a negative review for a performance that, after all, she never actually gave.

I was reminded of that comparison when I first saw François Ozon's Water Drops on Burning Rocks. Not only is the film based on a play written by the 19-year-old Rainer Werner Fassbinder but, in a production whose cast and dialogue are both French, Ozon elected for some reason to let his characters retain their original German names (Franz, Blühm, etc), to duplicate a style of interior design (basically, middle-class German kitsch circa 1970) familiar to us from Fassbinder's own films, and even to sprinkle the odd German pop song on the soundtrack. He appeared to be begging us to make the obvious comparison - and was inevitably crushed by it. I found the film engrossing enough, a quantum leap forward from Ozon's first, the calamitous Sitcom, but also in sore need of the extroversion, the hysteria, the sheer nuttiness, which had kept me watching even the most ramshackle of Fassbinder's own confections.

I was mistaken. Just as Diane Keaton shouldn't be criticised for a performance she never gave, so, I realise on seeing it a second time, Ozon's film cannot be dismissed as a servile imitation of Fassbinder's work. Cool, witty and fastidiously French, Water Drops on Burning Rocks is no sweatily febrile psychodrama but a pale black (if such a thing is possible) comedy-of-manners, an extraordinarily "even" film, as other films are described as uneven, a film without tides, without italicised passages.

Its first act (Ozon also preserved the play's four-act, four-character, one-set structure) is a little masterpiece of observation, a user's manual to the codes and conventions of the gay pick-up. A fiftyish insurance salesman, Leopold Blühm (if that name was meant to set off some kind of Joycean resonance, it passed me by), returns one evening to his flat with, in bashful tow, a curly-haired, freckle-faced ephebe, Franz, whom he has accosted in the street. (When I asked a gay friend of mine if he had liked the film, he replied, "No - too freckly", which is, I suppose, one way of looking at it.) It's all there - the queasy preliminary chat about everything save the matter at hand, the exchange of ages, the guided tour, the indulgently paternal tut-tutting over youthful peccadillos ("You know, you smoke too much"), the obligatory allusion to the sexual habits of the ancient Greeks ("Ah yes, the ancient Greeks..." murmurs Franz, the pfennig finally dropping) and, just as one begins to wonder if it's ever going to happen, the unequivocal pass. It's practically a documentary.

By the second act, we are deep in Fassbinder country. Franz, fetching in lederhosen, his hair gorgeously blow-dried, no longer an ordinarily handsome young man but a living, breathing gay centrefold, has moved in, becoming not just Leopold's lover but his maid. (A surprising amount of running time is expended on Franz's connubial chores, drying dishes, vacuuming carpets and the like.) The grisly Leopold is, we discover, an emotional sadist who reinforces his hold over his mignon by consistently wrongfooting him in the living-room then reducing him to jelly in the bedroom - a trick (what one might call applying the turn of the screw) picked up by Franz himself when his girlfriend, the curvaceously healthy and cheerful Anna, arrives to rescue him, followed by Leopold's ageing former mistress, Vera, the most indelibly Fassbinderian of all the characters. (Just watch the way her cigarette trembles between her immaculately manicured fingers.)

There is patently a metaphorical dimension to the film's hypothesis of sexuality, in particular sadomasochistic sexuality (which, for Fassbinder, was the only kind), as a series of power games, a virtual template for all relationships, whether personal, social, professional or political, that are founded on inequality and exploitation. Yet, as Nabokov remarked, the art of fiction lies in the caressing of details, and Water Drops on Burning Rocks works best, not as some all-purpose allegory but as a portrait, occasionally tender, often acid, always exquisitely observed, of the imposs- ibility of a shared life, of the sociology and psychology of a couple, gay or otherwise. Hell may be other people, the film seems to say, but solitude is certainly not heaven.

The cast - Bernard Giraudeau as Leopold, Malik Zidi as Franz, Ludivine Sagnier as Anna and Anna Thomson as Vera - cannot be faulted, Giraudeau being an especial revelation, as he was once an insipid jeune premier. It's refreshing (and increasingly rare) to see a young director's confidence grow from film to film, considering how much pressure there currently is on getting things right, on pulling off both a critical and commercial triumph, the first time around. And the meaning of the title? Your guess is as good as mine.

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