Film/DVD: Five Ozon Reviews

ImageSelected François Ozon Films

Reviews of "Photo de famille" (1988), Sitcom (1998), Criminal Lovers (1999), 8 Women (2002), and Swimming Pool (2003)

With the brief reviews below and my in-depth critiques of See The Sea, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, and Under The Sand, I have shared my thoughts on all of François Ozon's features made through 2003.

Selected Ozon Web Resources

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"Photo de famille"
"Family Photo"

Directed & Written by François Ozon

1988 — 7 minutes, color, silent, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Black Comedy

Brief Review: In this early short film, shot without sound, Ozon convinced his real-life mother, father, sister and brother to enact an unnervingly comic family snuff film. Although the filmmaking is rudimentary – Ozon wrote, directed, photographed and edited this 7-minute exercise by himself in his parents' house – he is already tackling the combination of horror and social satire which come to fruition ten years later in Sitcom. In fact, virtually all of Ozon's films twist the suspense genre in various ways; at their best – See The Sea and Under The Sand – the results are strikingly original. We can already see the beginnings of his experimentation with the thriller here in "Photo de famile." Although the crude visuals – eerily imitating a real home movie – are likely the best he could then afford, they actually make the son's nonchalance, as he offs his entire family one by one, even more disturbing than a slick style (even in 1988 most thrillers were shot like music videos). What's most unsettling is the genuine calm and happiness with which the boy positions himself among his nuclear family for the climactic snapshot. His boyish grin lets us know that at last he has his family exactly where he's always wanted them to be. If we didn't know that Ozon would develop into such a lucid filmmaker, we might be very worried about the kid photographing this family – both in fiction and real life. Clearly not for all tastes, "Photo de famille" is included complete on the Sitcom DVD.

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"A Summer Dress"
"Une robe d'été"

"A Summer Dress" (1996) — next Ozon film (in chronological order) — reviewed on a separate page.

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See The SeaSee The Sea
Regarde la mer

See The Sea (1997) — next Ozon film (in chronological order) — reviewed on a separate page.

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SitcomSitcom

Directed & Written by François Ozon

1998 — 80 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Black Comedy

Brief Review: When an unsuspecting businessman brings home a pet white mouse – which had been used for "lab experiments" – every member of his family, and visitor, who's bitten by the rodent begins acting out their most taboo fantasies. Very strange, very funny, and gorgeously designed and shot; if 'lemon chiffon' is your favorite color, this just might become your favorite film (although the subject matter could prove a stumbling block). Although not nearly as rich as the two best 'mysterious stranger brings liberating anarchy to a repressed middle class family' pictures I know – Renoir's fabulous Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) and Pasolini's seductively unnervingTeorema (1968) – I think this is an interesting addition to Ozon's often impressive filmography. Besides, how can a little white mouse hope to compare to those other enigmatic liberators, Jean Gabin or Terence Stamp?

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Criminal LoversCriminal Lovers
Les Amants criminels

Directed & Written by François Ozon

1999 — 96 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Suspense / Fantasy

Brief Review: "Hansel and Gretel" meets Natural Born Killers, by way of The Night of the Hunter and the poetry of that teenage genius of angst, Arthur Rimbaud. A seductive, emotionally deranged teenage girl convinces her confused boyfriend to help her kill the class stud. Then things become really unusual as the two, fleeing from the crime, get lost in a forest and are held captive by, yes, an ogre. If you thought Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) was as far as a Freudian revision of a fairy tale could go, wait till you see what Ozon does.

Although I found the film rather uneven, to say that it consistently held my attention is an understatement. It's also one of Ozon's most visually rich pictures, capturing both the creepy neatness of the middle-class world and the alluring chaos of the forest scenes. The boy's homoerotic relationship with the ogre, who keeps him on a leash, is not easily forgotten.

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Water Drops on Burning RocksWater Drops On Burning Rocks
Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes

Water Drops on Burning Rocks (1999) — next Ozon film (in chronological order) — reviewed on a separate page. This is Ozon's adaptation of an unproduced early play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

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Under The SandUnder The Sand
Sous le sable

Under The Sand (2000) — next Ozon film (in chronological order) — reviewed on a separate page.

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8 Women8 Women
8 Femmes

Directed & Written by François Ozon

2002 — 109 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Suspense / Comedy / Musical

Brief Review: In an isolated mansion, with the phone lines cut and car sabotaged, eight women are snowbound with the corpse of a man which every one of them had a motive for killing. Ozon whips together suspense and musical comedy in a film boasting a stellar (almost) all-woman cast: Catherine Deneuve (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Belle de jour), Danielle Darrieux (La Ronde, The Earrings of Madame de...), Isabelle Huppert (Violette Nozière, Sauve qui peut (la vie)), Emmanuelle Béart (Manon of the Spring, La Belle noiseuse), Fanny Ardant (The Woman Next Door, Confidentally Yours), Virginie Ledoyen (Chabrol's La Cérémonie, Danny Boyle's The Beach), Ludivine Sagnier (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Swimming Pool), and Firmine Richard. (The sole representative of his sex, Dominique Lamure plays the man with the knife stuck in his back.)

To quote (young) Stephen Sondheim's lyric from Gypsy (stage 1959 / film 1962), "You gotta get a gimmick, if you want to get ahead." True enough, whether politics, business or show biz. But unfortunately the "gimmicks" in 8 Women wear thin pretty quickly. Ozon, who adapted a stage play by author Robert Thomas for his script, uses a melodramatic murder mystery, set at the height of 1950s female fashions, and then periodically inserts "one-note" musical numbers every ten minutes. The songs are tuneful, and they give each talented cast member a turn at struttin' her stuff in a solo (there is only one ensemble number), but the numbers grind the story to a halt. Like good journalism, each song clearly states its topic in the "lead sentence," then simply spins out several more examples until it ends.

On another level, Ozon is clearly taking several cues from his aesthetic mentor, filmmaker extraordinaire Rainer Werner Fassbinder; in fact Ozon's film of teenage Fassbinder's unproduced play, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, is a fascinating amalgam of these two openly-gay writer/directors' interests and techniques. But in 8 Women, the Fassbinder card is not the ace it can sometimes be. Ozon here plays up the '50s melodrama/Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows) angle, as does Fassbinder in many of his best films (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Lola); but for Ozon it's annoying and not, as in Fassbinder, an imaginative way of dissecting such deep social problems as sexism, racism and homophobia. Perhaps even worse, the would-be spoofy gimmickry just isn't that much fun in 8 Women; there's a clunky, mechanical feel to how it's employed. Artifice can be a wonderfully effective element, whether in an unselfconscious way, like Singin' in the Rain, or at its most cerebral/political, like Godard's Week End; but here there's really nothing humanly involving behind the campy, cliched surface.

Those conceptual problems weigh down even this exceptional cast, which spans over a half century of French cinema, from Max Ophül's star Danielle Darieux to some extremely gifted young actresses. Despite all of the "shocking" revelations, nothing they do can bring these paper-thin characters to life. Yes, I realize that Ozon is trying to "distance" us from the plot – an ostensible reason for the candy-colored production design and all of those songs – so that we can "contemplate" the critical social message but, for me, it never gelled. However, the last half of the movie was more involving than the squirm-inducing first half. But since the multiple plot revelations are similar to those in most conventional mysteries – and the culprit is always the person you least suspect – it felt hollow at the end. If you're looking for an "upstairs/downstairs" period murder mystery, with an incisive political conscience (and a touch of homoeroticism), don't miss Gosford Park, Robert Altman's best film in years.

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Swimming PoolSwimming Pool

Directed & Written by François Ozon

2003 — 103 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Suspense

Brief Review: More a work of psychological suspense than an actual thriller (which the trailer leads you to expect), this picture features another superbly nuanced performance by Charlottle Rampling (Under The Sand) and showcases the dramatic range of Ludivine Sagnier (Water Drops on Burning Rocks). Hoping to jumpstart her next book, a bestselling mystery author (Rampling) goes for some peace and quiet in the French countryside at her publisher's vacation house. Everything goes swimmingly until the unexpected arrival of the publisher's voluptuous and hedonistic teenage daughter (Sagnier). The two women clash, until an unexpected event compels them to join forces.

Ozon again finds ways to create cool, alluring surfaces even as he suggests the violence below. Although Rampling, and Sagnier, give spellbinding performances, I wish that Ozon had showed us more of how their relationship unfolded. In his best enigmatic suspense films, like See The Sea and Under The Sand, Ozon is a master at suggesting (shall we say) abysses of psychological subtext; what's unsaid and never shown are utterly compelling. But in those films, what we see onscreen of the characters he has written is more developed, and hence more involving. In other words, he grounds his rich ambiguity in psychological insight. In this film, Rampling's character – although Rampling the actress is superb – feels underdeveloped as written. And when, near the end, we get to the not-so-shocking big revelation, the character, and indeed the entire film, holds itself up for accusations of mere gimmickry. Rampling is at her best, but unfortunately Ozon – who has elsewhere proven himself a fascinating contemporary filmmaker – is not. Still, the film offers considerable pleasure as a work of design, cinematography and performance; and despite my reservations, it's worth seeing.

Reviewed February 4, 2004

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