Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 13 
10 Nov
2003

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Francois Ozon's Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brulantes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, 1999) FRANCE
Identity and love
The not-so discreet
charm of François Ozon

Ozon has been marginalised in writing on French film and when discussed is usually considered in terms of New Gay Cinema. But, finding wider themes in his work, Adam Bingham argues against those who say Ozon is just a "young homo... spoon-fed on queerness."


The career of François Ozon has, thus far, almost self-consciously defied easy or definitive categorisation. His place in contemporary French film-making has been difficult and ambiguous; something reinforced by his complete absence from the (not insubstantial) list of books on French cinema that have continued to appear in recent years: works like French Cinema in the 1990s,[1] French Cinema A Student's Guide, [2] and French Film: texts and contexts[3] make no mention of him whatever, and a recent publication of a series of studies of French directors—from Renoir to Truffaut to Besson, and even including Marguerite Duras—has noticeably failed to rectify these omissions.[4]

To my mind, the central issue in this neglect concerns French cinema's (and French critical magazines like Cahiers du Cinema and Positif's) perpetual and often over-riding placement of its directors in schools, movements and other such groupings to help define its own sense of national cinema. Historically, one can point to movements like impressionism (and indeed surrealism) in the 1920s and 30s, poetic realism in the 1930s and 40s, the Nouvelle Vague and the recent New, New Wave.

There have also been genres that have emerged and helped define whole generations of film-making. Broadly, the films d'art of the 1910s, the pejoratively termed cinema de papa (daddy's cinema—the polished literary adaptation) of the 1940s and 50s (against which the New Wave critics-turned-directors were rebelling), the thriller (in its various guises of gangster and policier pictures) in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and the cinema du look and heritage film of the 1980s, 90s and beyond. Finally, the fantastical comedy received much attention throughout the 1990s, along with the cinema de banlieue (meaning outskirts of the city, though not suburbs), which was heralded by Matthieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995).

Of course these are far from exhaustive in defining the total output of French cinema, and it is by no means the case that every other French film-maker fits easily into one or other of them. But nonetheless François Ozon is, I think, particularly problematic and to some extent marginal because it is impossible to put any kind of label on him or to place him with any confidence in any aspect of French film-making. He has self-consciously flirted around certain genres and trends (the extreme element of French cinema, exemplified by, say, Gaspar Noé), but only to compound and provoke, shock and surprise. The only tag that seems anywhere near appropriate for him (and even this becomes somewhat unsatisfactory as one comes up to date) is, like Buñuel, like (to a lesser extent) Fassbinder, that of François Ozon unto himself. So, after noting all this, where does one begin?

Spoon-fed on queerness

Francois Ozon's Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brulantes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, 1999)It seems almost obligatory to look at Ozon in a different way entirely from the above noted attributes, and to consider him in the light of the strain of film-making within which he was more or less squarely placed on the strength of the short films and early features that made his name: New Gay Cinema (though now this is as much a problematic category in which to put Ozon as any other). It has been remarked by the influential Queer View website that "Young homo Ozon... seems to have been spood-fed on queerness to the extent of simply coughing it up again in his works," a notice that seems to me to miss much of the thematic complexity and organic construction of Ozon's best films, and indeed to be greatly misleading in denoting the degree to which homosexuality is the point or even the focus of his work.[5]

Taking it at face value, I don't see how one can extract any other meaning from this statement than the deeply condescending one that Ozon is so gay (whatever is meant by this: presumably, that he is a rampantly nymphomaniacal homosexual) that he can't but impose "gayness" on his material, can't but make films that are "about" gays. Perhaps there is some (very limited) currency in this with regard to the outrageous, Buñuelian anti-bourgeois fantasy of Sitcom (1998). But, overlooking major works that don't feature homosexuality such as Regarde la mer (See The Sea, 1997), one could surely never watch the films that do—the piercing studies of sexuality and identity that are Le Petite Mort (The Little Death, 1995) or Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, 1999)—and come to the conclusion that the homosexual content is forced on them.

In a 1993 article on Fassbinder and homosexuality, Douglas Crimp seems implicitly to challenge the notion that a gay director has to either make films that are overtly or covertly about homosexuality.[6] Although Crimp does not elaborate extensively on this point, he does allude to a central question or problem in the work of homosexual film-makers: the extent to which their films are actually about homosexuality. His article goes on to note that the biographical fact, or "essential biographeme," [8] of Fassbinder's real-life homosexuality is what enriches, even facilitates an audience's emotional response to the act of self-revelation in the films of his that contain overt homosexuality; which actually comes down to no more than just featuring homosexual characters.

But is this a cinematic "coming out"? Are these films "about" homosexuality (about, that is, the experience of being gay)? In Ozon, as in Fassbinder (not an arbitrary correlation as Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes was adapted from an early, un-staged Fassbinder play), homosexuality is generally part of a larger, more complex and intricate character study: an element of the story, certainly, but not of the central thematic.

A complex identity

Francois Ozon's La Petite Mort (The Little Death, 1995)This is first witnessed in the aforementioned short film Le Petite Mort, which concerns the crisis a young gay photographer, Paul, has when he (somewhat forcibly) visits his estranged and very seriously ill father in hospital. The father, who had always taunted him about being ugly as a child, doesn't recognise him, and the visit is then the catalyst for him to sort out the troubles, particularly in his own relationship with an extrovert but very loving partner, that seem to stem from his youth and the emotional abuse by his father.

Of course homosexuality features in this film, and it is presented very straightforwardly and naturalistically, but it is not really what Ozon is exploring. Paul's obsession with photography, and in particular his preoccupation with photographing men (including himself) at the precise moment of ejaculation and orgasm—that is, the precise moment of ultimate pleasure—stems from his own image of himself as defined by the baby picture of him that opens the film and in which he sees himself as the ugly child his father always said he was (a crystallization, such as a photo provides, of his inadequacy).

What he is doing, then, is attempting to erase photographic pain with photographic pleasure, as well as in some sense (not entirely unlike Jimmy Stewart's wheelchair-bound photographer Jeffries in Hitchcock's Rear Window, 1954) evading and ultimately trying to control reality—his reality. The central sequence of the film (structurally and thematically) has Paul sneak into the hospital where his dad lies on his deathbed and take pictures of his naked body as he sleeps.

A reassertion of control (his dad is helpless like Paul was as a baby) over the figure in his life that has, literally and metaphorically, hitherto dominated him seems to me to be at the heart of this sequence. And, further, it reinforces the notion that Paul's identity, his sense of himself (which necessarily includes his sexuality, though he in no way struggles with his homosexuality), has very much been shaped by what has happened in his life, its major events and, in this case, traumas.

The final link in Paul's coming to terms with himself comes when he develops his photos and sees his dad clearly awake and looking straight at him in a close-up shot of his face. His sister later tells him that his father was pleased that he was there; thus, in effect, his dad accepts his role as object in his son's (indirect) gaze, which reverses the original trauma of the baby photo wherein Paul was a helpless object, and brings about a sense of closure for that particular chapter in his life.

If he seems to feel more secure in his sexuality after this (he is warmer to his lover and indeed they make love where he avoided doing so before), then this is a surface sign of his more harmonious inner self. He can now finally accept and reciprocate love and affection (not mere homosexual love and affection, as one must conclude that he has had sex with his lover before) because he is more able than ever to, if not love himself, then at least to appreciate himself and the fact that he is a worthwhile person worthy of the love that is shown to him by his boyfriend and, crucially (though less overtly), by his sister.

In the last instance, though, one could perhaps argue the case for inferring that Paul's rupture from his father led to his homosexuality (over-devotion to the mother is a great Freudian cliché of homosexuality). What Le Petite Mort investigates, however, is something more universal, something that transcends sexuality: that of the way in which we are all shaped, indeed moulded, Francois Ozon's Sous le sable (Under the Sand, 2001)in our identities by the events of our lives, and the way in which the past can cloud and even define the present (something central to Ozon's third feature, Sous le sable / Under the Sand, 2001). Just as Fassbinder wanted Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and his Friends, 1975) to be seen as just a love story rather than a love story between two men, so this film can be seen and interpreted without making the homosexual content the central focus.

Water drops and burning rocks

Though less broadly resonant and applicable, such complexity of effect nonetheless reaches its peak in Ozon's third feature: Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes, in which a young man of 20, Franz Meister, is picked up by a much older man of 50, Léopold Bluhm, for sex and ends up as his live-in lover and servant. Franz's life is complicated further by the arrival of his girlfriend and a transsexual former lover of Léopold's at the flat they share, the synecdochic cage in which the entire film takes place.

The notion of sexuality is in this film bound up inextricably with self-identity and with gender. There is, in point of fact, only one character of the four in the film that can be seen as more or less unambiguously homosexual, and that is the transsexual who is now a woman. Franz, who is picked up by Léopold whilst on his way to meet his girlfriend Anna for a date, has only had, apart from a dream of being entered like a girl (and dreams are a constantly referred to throughout this film), an awkward experience with another boy at boarding school that disgusted him, and has otherwise never given any thought to sleeping with a man (though he takes little persuading, perhaps because he has never fully enjoyed sex with Anna, seeing it, as he says, as something one must do to keep the peace).

He takes to sex with Léopold very quickly, and indeed the sex is seemingly the only thing keeping them together after six months when act two (the film is explicitly divided into four acts, each introduced on screen via a caption) gets underway. However, to complicate matters even more, he then enjoys a lot of sex with Anna when she turns up at the flat to try and persuade him to come back with her and get married, which he looks all set to do, only being prevented by Léopold's early return from one of his frequent and lengthy work-related sojourns.

Léopold says at the beginning that he had a girlfriend for seven years, with whom he enjoyed great sex but little else (much like how his relationship with Franz turns out). He does state that he prefers sex with boys, but he wastes little time in indulging in a threesome with a remarkably willing Anna and Vera (the transsexual who used to be a man but who had a sex change because Léopold said he would have married him if only he were a woman).

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and his Friends, 1975)The sexual histories and activities of these two men seem on the surface to be deeply ambiguous, and indeed I take this to be the point, as it conceals entirely antithetical mindsets. They can actually be seen (despite the fact that their relationship is not, as is the central relationship in Faustrecht der Freiheit, based on ritual exploitation and humiliation) to occupy almost diagrammatic opposites in terms of the essence of their characters.

Léopold is brash and in control, having sex with different people to show that he can and to assert dominance and independence (this is surely why he whisks Anna off for sex so soon after meeting her, just as she and Franz were going to leave).

Franz, on the other hand, turns out ultimately to be a mass of contradictions. Most obviously, he says at the beginning that he doesn't believe love is important, that (like a good bourgeois) art and the theatre are what matters. However, as he lays dying at the very end after purposefully ingesting poison (presumably in reaction to seeing how little Léopold and Anna really care about him and how shallow and driven by sex they are), he finally seems to truthfully open up when he tells Vera that he probably loves Léopold. He also states at the beginning that sex is not important; yet, as mentioned above, six months into his relationship with Franz in act two, it is the only thing that keeps them together.

Franz's love for Léopold alludes to another central aspect of this film regarding the characters—the way that the four of them, at the end, have fractured into two groups, each finding in the most unexpected person a connection (shallow and physical or meaningful and emotional) that binds them together. This is insisted upon at the end, as Léopold and Anna (who professed love for Franz before but whose only concern when she learns of his death is who will father the children she wants) are in the bedroom having sex whilst Franz and Vera talk in the living room.

Francois Ozon's Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brulantes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, 1999)The link between Franz and Vera as victims of Léopold and as people desperately in search of a secure identity is insisted upon several times. They converse pensively together whilst Léopold and Anna frolic in the bedroom, with Vera suggesting they try being together, as they both love Léopold. Moreover, at the very end they are both dead, with Franz's actual death reflecting Vera's much more tragic spiritual and emotional death, as well as the death of his identity.

A recurrent composition in the film has characters seen through apartment windows from the outside with the camera looking in. It is a common Sirkian motif that suggests entrapment, as well as connoting distance when Franz and Léopold are seen in separate windows. The final shot of the film, of Vera clawing feebly at the window as the camera outside draws slowly away, thus makes it plain that she, unlike Franz, is still locked in her cage, and always will be because she is weaker than Franz; she could never (and will never) give up on the blind hope that one day she will be with Léopold and he will love her in the way she/he loves him.

I have only really scratched the surface of this film here, but it should nonetheless be clear that to say the film is (denotatively or connotatively) about homosexuality obliterates much of its complexity and ambiguity. In the thematic of emotional manipulation and domination and sexual exploitation, in the characters with unstable identities and in the death (by suicide , but which nonetheless can be considered indirect murder) of the protagonist at the end, this emerges as an almost prototypical Fassbinder narrative.

Indeed, Thomas Elsaesser's statement about Fassbinder's film In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year of 13 Moons, 1978, which centres on a tragic transsexual) that: "Here, the search for another identity, undertaken out of love, produces the fantasy of the double... [that] inscribes itself on the body," [9] corroborates such a strong link with the writer of the play. That the film can still also be seen as a François Ozon work is ample testament to this film-maker's stature and artistry in only his second feature.

Ozon the auteur

Francois Ozon's Une Robe d'été (A Summer Dress, 1996)In addition to the themes outlined above, he has shown a constant preoccupation with a fluid positioning and construction of gender and masculinity and femininity. This can first be seen in his provocative short Une Robe d'été (A Summer Dress, 1996), in which a young gay man has sex with a woman whilst on holiday and has to borrow her dress to get back to where he is staying, something that seems to fire up his sex life with his lover. Aside from wearing the dress, which he appears to ultimately enjoy, the position he adopts when having sex with his boyfriend, of being lifted by him atop a table, is very much a feminine one, and they also look from behind almost like a man and woman.

This is also seen in Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes, particularly in the repeated little scenes that close acts one, two and three. Franz tells Léopold at the beginning that he had a dream in which a man entered him like a girl, and Léopold says he will do that if Franz wants, before ordering him to strip and lie on his bed. In the next scene Léopold enters the room dressed in a big overcoat as Franz lies coyly waiting for him. This little game is reversed at the end of act two, when Franz wears the coat and Léopold waits, and in act three when it is conventionally Franz as the man and Anna lying on the bed. Franz also becomes Léopold's maid and several times is seen in a feminine light cleaning the flat and especially blow drying his hair and enjoying a bubble bath.

The character of Vera in this light can thus be seen as an external and concrete manifestation of this implicit tendency in Franz (another link between them). She is someone, as Elsaesser suggests of Elvira in In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden, [10] in which a distinct doubling is produced: a man who has literally become a woman, and who has done it all for the love of another man.

Francois Ozon's 8 Femmes (8 Women, 2001)Another central aspect of Ozon's oeuvre is theatricality and artifice. His first feature, Sitcom opens from behind a great red theatre curtain, and takes place largely in a single setting. Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes is even more strictly confined to a single set—Léopold's flat—and further features many static, front on camera set-ups that half recall an observed theatrical performance. There is also, towards the end, a scene in which the four characters all of a sudden break away from the pensive and angry feelings that had hitherto been bubbling to the surface and erupt into a camp, straight-to-camera dance number to a Euro-pop song by Tony Holiday.

This side of Ozon reaches its peak in the enjoyable post-modern exercise 8 Femmes (8 Women, 2001), another adaptation of an original stage production. This film again has a single set (a mansion at which a murder is committed and from which none of the titular women, all of whom are suspects, can leave because of the snow outside) and an extremely glossy, performative, Douglas Sirk-like mise-en-scène. The starry cast, featuring the top French stars of several generations: from Danielle Darrieux and Fanny Ardant through Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart right down to Virginie Ledoyen (all immaculately beautiful and each given a stint in the spotlight with a song to sing), also enhance a feeling of artifice, as does the soap-opera plotting with its thick and fast revelations and almost self-parodic contrivance.

The future

Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool (2003)Unsurprisingly, 8 Femmes, Ozon's most glossy, shallow and inconsequential film to date, has also been by far his most successful. If he didn't exactly repeat the exercise with Swimming Pool (2003), he did largely stay in the arena of star powered commerciality, adding a dash of Hitchcockian suspense construction for good measure to top the package off. Although in these more recent films he has abandoned the intense character studies he made such an impression with in his best shorts and features for an intricate and self-conscious play with star, genre and narrative, he has nonetheless done enough to qualify him as a distinctive artist with a recognisable style. These films could easily have been designed by Ozon to catch audiences and critics off guard and to show how wrong they were in trying to pigeonhole him on the strength of previous work. Indeed, there are few film-makers for whom the title "A film by" or "a ...film" means so much and yet so little.

Ozon is a director with whom extreme cinema expert Mark Kermode has said you can never relax and you are never in safe hands.[10] One hopes Kermode continues to be right, and that Ozon's recent ventures prove as misleading in defining a sense of his career as his previous films have done. With that, we can only wait with baited breath for the next billing of "Un film de François Ozon."

Adam Bingham

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Also of interest
About the author

Adam Bingham is a post-graduate student in international cinema at the University of Sheffield, England. He has written for online journals such as Cinetext and Senses of Cinema, and also for the Canada-based film journal CineAction.


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Footnotes

1. Phillip Powrie (ed), French Cinema in the 1990s Continuity and Difference. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.return to text

2. Phillip Powrie and Keith Reader, French Cinema: A Student's Guide. Arnold Publishers, Great Britain, 2002.return to text

3. Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds), French Film: texts and contexts. Routledge, London, 2000.return to text

4. Published by Manchester University Press. Books from the series first reached bookshop shelves in 1998 and volumes are still being launched.return to text

5. Kate Infectious, "Sitcom," Queer-view.com, 21 March 1999. The website is now defunct, but the original page can be viewed courtesy of Archive.org.return to text

6.Douglas Crimp, "Fassbinder, Franz, Fox, Elvira, Erwin, Armin, and All the Others" in Queer Looks Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, Martha Gever, John Greyson and Pratibha Parmar (eds)(London: Routledge, 1993) pp 257-74.return to text

7. Ibid, p 264.return to text

8.Thomas Elsaesser Fassbinder's Germany (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press , 1996), p 290.return to text

9. Ibid.return to text

10. Mark Kermode, in his introduction to a screening of Sitcom on FilmFour.return to text

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