Once regarded as the taboo-busting enfant terrible of French cinema, François Ozon has, for the most part reined in the wilder excesses of his earlier work. Having settled into an almost Woody Allen-like schedule, releasing new films with a metronomic reliability, he’s actually in danger of becoming something of an elder statesman. This regularity shouldn’t imply that he’s surrendered to anything approaching formula, however. The style and content of his films vary wildly, although there are certain themes and influences that are recurring throughout his ever-growing filmography.
From his debut full-length, Sitcom (1998), Ozon has fired satirical broadsides at the middle-class family unit. In a gleefully transgressive, if critically unadmired, take on Pasolini’s Theorem, a pet rat is the catalyst for the breakdown of the family unit. Like Bunuel filtered through John Waters, the satire of Sitcom is considered to be blunted by its shock tactics. However, the interest in gender fluidity and the complexities of sexual politics he demonstrates here would prove to be verdant inspiration throughout his career.
Criminal Lovers (1999) is a twisted Hansel and Gretel tale that sees teen murderers Jeremie Renier and Natacha Regnier captured by a woodsman who has sexual designs on his young male captive. This was followed by the adaptation of an early Rainer Werner Fassbinder play, Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000), featuring a love triangle between an older man and a young couple. Beyond his willing exploration of gay relationships, Water Drops indicates a love of melodrama that continues up to the lush, black-and-white opulence of Frantz (2016).
With Under the Sand (2000), Ozon finally attracted real critical acclaim as an astonishing Charlotte Rampling deals with grief after her husband vanishes from a beach. Ozon resists closure, shrouding the film in subtle mystery like a heavy fog. It was an unexpectedly mature effort from the exuberant young director.
His effervescence returned with vigour for the camp, black-comedy musical 8 Women (2002), featuring a pantheon of French actresses such as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardent and Ludivine Sagnier. As well as further establishing his chameleonic skills as a filmmaker, 8 Women also demonstrated that Ozon is a director of women to rival Pedro Almodovar.
Sagnier and Rampling enjoy a beautifully antagonistic relationship in the ambiguous thriller Swimming Pool, adding Hitchcock to Ozon’s bubbling cauldron of influences. This lusty, sexually-charged work remains one of his finest films as repressed English novelist Rampling encounters the hedonistic, voracious Sagnier.
5X2 (2005) sees the director’s focus return once more to the French middle-class, as he depicts the breakdown of a relationship through five key scenes. It resembles Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage if filmed by Gaspar Noë, as the scenes are shown in reverse order. As with Noë’s crushing Irréversible, it gives the illusion of a happy ending. Like Bergman’s film, the gaps between the scenes invite us to guess where the relationship soured.
Ozon indulged his fondness for melodrama again in Time to Leave (2005), as gay fashion photographer Melvil Poupaud faces up to his impending mortality. This was followed by two films not considered among the finest in his canon. Angel (2007) is based on a novel by Elizabeth Taylor (not that one), and is notable for an early Michael Fassbender appearance. Ricky (2009) saw little distribution outside of France, and is about a baby who grows wings.
Having for the most part left his fondness for the trashy and the overtly outré behind, Ozon’s films fall into roughly three fields: richly mature, contemplative melodrama; the camp, whimsical trifles; and the mysterious, thriller-inflected works. His next three releases fit these templates nicely. The first is, 2009’s The Refuge, which sees drug addict Isabelle Carré pregnant and bereft after a bad batch of heroin kills her boyfriend.
Potiche (2010) was his largest international success for some time, with the casting of Catherine Deneuve an undoubted factor. This 70’s set trifle has Deneuve’s submissive “trophy wife” who ends up running her husband’s factory after his autocratic approach breeds mutiny among the workers. Yet again, Ozon targets the bourgeoisie, and the fact the company produces umbrellas is a neat nod to the Jacques Demy musical that made Deneuve a star.
In the House (2012) is a twisty, post-modern head-scratcher that sees a teacher of literature becoming voyeuristically hooked on the stories of one of his students. He becomes so embroiled in these tales that he ends up in the pages. Ozon blurs reality and fiction in dizzying fashion. In the House threatens to cave in under its own conceit, but Ozon manages to keep the plates spinning, and the film is easily among his finest works.
Ozon returned to more provocative material with the glacial Young & Beautiful (2013), exploring a teenage girl’s sexual awakening through her work as a call girl. Like a less dreamy Belle du Jour, it’s a typically French character study which is both explicit, yet oddly impersonal, perhaps partly down to the blank performance by lead actress Marine Vacth.
Perhaps Ozon’s bravest film, The New Girlfriend deals with grief through a blurring of gender roles as a widower takes to wearing his dead wife’s clothes. Gradually he adopts a female persona that engages the erotic curiosity of his wife’s best friend. It feels like Ozon occasionally conflates trans issues with traditional drag, but for the most part skips nimbly through this tricky minefield.
Frantz (2016) is arguably his most outwardly conventional work. The titular character is a spectre that hangs Rebecca-like over this melodrama as a young woman begins to fall for a handsome stranger that claims to have been her fiance’s friend before he was killed in the Great War. Again, Ozon plays with identity in a way that transcends its orthodox storytelling.
Prolific, occasionally maddening, but never less than interesting. Francois Ozon is arguably the most fascinating film director working in France today.
The Double Lover is on limited release in the UK from today. What’s your favourite Francois Ozon?