Film/DVD: review

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

Water Drops on Burning Rocks
Directed by François Ozon, screenplay by Ozon based on a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
 
2000, France — 82 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Comedy/Drama

Deliriously funny, caustic, stylish, and disturbing — the work of a gifted young filmmaker.

Review

ImageFrançois Ozon (See The Sea, Under The Sand) has been called the latest wunderkind not only of gay cinema, but of French film. With his deliriously rich fourth feature, Water Drops On Burning Rocks, this daring young filmmaker tackles the legacy of the great Rainer Werner Fassbinder in fascinating ways, even as he refines his own distinctive voice. This brilliantly acted film is alternately tender and sardonic, visually opulent yet claustrophobic, and wise beyond its years.

Adapted by Ozon from an unproduced play by Fassbinder (written when he was 19), the picture is set in 1970s Berlin. Leopold (Bernard Giraudeau), a smug, hunky 50-year-old businessman, picks up Franz (Malik Zidi), a fresh-faced redhead 30 years his junior, and the two quickly find themselves living together. Six months later, they are still scorching the sheets, but their once-cozy relationship has soured, Leopold having turned cranky. With the unexpected arrival of Franz's buxom blond girlfriend Anna (Ludivine Sagnier), eager to lead him to the altar and bear his children, and then Vera (Anna Thomson), Leopold's elegant and enigmatic ex, things get funnier, steamier, and more complicated than you might think possible.

Water Drops On Burning Rocks has inspired the most wildly contradictory opinions – ranging from highest praise (including top honors at the Berlin International Film Festival and the New York Lesbian & Gay Film Festival) to the unprintable – which I have heard in years. Having seen it twice, I'm definitely in the pro camp. I also have a somewhat tangled relationship with it since I spent much of the past year in viewing, re-viewing, and reviewing the densely rewarding films of the artist who inspired Ozon here: Fassbinder (you are welcome to visit my Fassbinder site).

But you do not need to have seen a single Fassbinder to enjoy Ozon's film. So do not let my references to the great German auteur deter you from experiencing one of the most provocative pictures of the last few years, and from exploring the work of this brilliant new filmmaker.

ImageThere are many themes typical of Fassbinder in this mordant exploration of the tangled web of sex and power, including his perennial look at the vicious circles of exploitation – with all of the attendant love, loathing and unsettling but sometimes hilarious humor. Yet his worldview is refracted through a new, and razor-sharp, perspective. Leopold and Franz obviously love each other, but their familiar, and Fassbinder would say all-too-human, inability to communicate divides them. And into that breach Leopold is only too eager to bring exploitation, as he turns Franz into a hausfrau, albeit one in lederhosen instead of pantyhose. In case there was any doubt that we are in Fassbinder territory (an endlessly fascinating place to visit, and contemplate, but you wouldn't want to live there), we see the exploitation spiral into a second generation, as Franz uses Leopold's strategies on his former girlfriend, Anna, when she makes a surprise visit in the hope of snagging back her beau. Perhaps the most poignant, and surprising, example of these circles – within circles – of need and frustration comes when we learn the story of the mysterious Vera (whom Ozon dresses in the height of Hanna Schygulla – Fassbinder's most famous leading lady – style).

Ozon also uses, and plays with in very creative ways, Fassbinder's visual style, especially as seen in the ravishing Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which Ozon admitted was his primary model here. As he put it, "A fairly systematic procedure of Fassbinder consisted of narrowing the field of view with edges of walls, doors, windows and plants which re-framed and imprisoned the characters. Sometimes filming actions behind glass windows gives the impression of seeing the characters like fish in an aquarium." Also as in Fassbinder, we have the frequent use of frontal shots, extreme angles, merciless close-ups, and a sometimes swirling camera which traps the characters; although Ozon is more partial to diffused lighting. Like his predecessor, Ozon wrests genuine visual beauty from the claustrophobia of the single hermetic setting. It also should be noted that he paid meticulous attention to a dead-on recreation of a 70s bachelor pad, from clunky rotary-dial phones to swamp-like shag rugs. But there is also much of originality in this film.

ImageIn fact, Ozon had not set out to make a neo-Fassbinder picture. As he remarked, he had "wanted to make a film about a couple for a long time. A film about the difficulty of living together and putting up with the daily routine. In discovering Fassbinder's play, I realized that I didn't need to write an original screenplay. A play already existed on exactly what I felt like saying. Funny and moving at the same time, the breakdown of the couple touched me."

Some of the freshest and most exciting elements in the film may have been inspired by Fassbinder's text, but they spring from Ozon.

He has inspired in his four cast members performances of outstanding range and depth. They bring to life not only the complex psychologies of their characters (not least of all Anna Thomson's Vera) but their humanity. Fassbinder is justly praised for his use of actors, but as a disciple of Brecht and Godard he often emphasized the political ideas which his characters embody, creating an intentional distance between audience and the allegorized figures onscreen. With Ozon, the ideas are there for anyone interested in extracting them (for instance, there is the delightfully caustic satire of an apron-clad Franz performing the cleaning chores traditionally reserved for "housewives"), but there is more spontaneity.

Ozon is already a master at revealing increasingly subtle psychological layers in his extended scenes with characters – most notably Franz – alone. To take one example, Franz in the bathtub reading a Heinrich Heine poem ("Lorelei") is not just some highbrow beefcake shot. Ozon and Malik Zidi show us the minute workings of Franz's mind and emotions, in this intensely private moment. (Speaking of Franz, it should be noted that Fassbinder was the same age as Franz when he wrote this play in 1965; and that he used the name as his frequent pseudonym throughout his career.) Even in the astonishing final scenes, when the film reaches its ironic (and typically Fassbinderian) climax, Ozon has his actors emphasize the flesh-and-blood humanity of the people whose lives they are not only inhabiting but revealing. I am in no way denigrating Fassbinder; but I do want to point out a major, albeit subtle, difference between the two filmmakers.

Hands down the most delightful moment in the picture – which would never have made it into a version directed by Fassbinder – is the wild dance number in the fourth (of four) acts, using the infectious 70s Euro-pop anthem, "Tanze Samba Mit Mir" ("dance the samba with me"). Ozon keeps the head-on, frontal visual style of Fassbinder – the quartet arranged in a (ahem!) straight row – but the energy is purely his own. Not only does the dance give a burst of adrenaline, as it hurls the film towards its climax (as the number ends, the bisexual Leopold says, "Everyone in the bedroom" – the two women shriek in delight and scurry off with him – leaving Franz alone), it also reveals character. We vividly see one reason for Leopold's phenomenal sex appeal: His swiveling hips might have turned even Elvis's head. This scene also shows us that Ozon is very much part of the modern French cinematic tradition, as it recalls the whackily unforgettable madison danced by Godard's titular Band of Outsiders in 1964 (and which 30 years later Tarantino adapted for Pulp Fiction's dance scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman). Since Godard was the primary influence on young Fassbinder, you might say that there is a wonderful circle of influence from Godard to Fassbinder to Ozon and back to Godard. In any event, that song and scene rock; and, for better or worse, it's been years since a tune has so lodged itself in my head.

ImageAnother striking difference between this film and its source – written over 30 years earlier (before Ozon had even been born) – is its different, albeit unstated, assumptions about same-sex relationships. For instance, in the scenes in which Anna tries to win back Franz, there is not even a hint of anything "unnatural" about Franz and Leopold's couplehood. These people live in a world in which hetero-, homo-, and bi-sexuality are simply irrelevant to the basic – and of course messy – dynamics of desire. Although boldly defiant about society's sexual hypocrisies, homophobia surrounded Fassbinder in ways which are likely unthinkable in modern Europe (although they are still all too "thinkable" in many other parts of the world, including wide swathes of the U.S.). If Fassbinder had filmed his play, even at the end of his life in 1982, there would have been a palpable feeling of unease about the relationship between Leopold and Franz, although the age difference in the original play is much less great (15 years, not 30). All of the same-sex (not to mention the many opposite sex) relationships in Fassbinder's work are troubled – defiant, poignant, complex, yet troubled. Just think of Petra von Kant and the women in her circle, "Fox" Biberkopf and his grasping gay (and straight) "friends" in Fox and His Friends, the tempestuous director and his histrionic lovers of both genders in Beware of a Holy Whore, and the protagonist of In a Year of 13 Moons (which inspired Ozon's to substantially rewrite Fassbinder's final act for his film, while the first three acts are very close to the original). In this film, there is a total lack of self-consciousness about sexual orientation. It is simply not an issue; and you can easily imagine the same themes, and results – from a couple... or trio... or quartet – of any orientational configuration.

ImageEven with his original vision of the play, Ozon tips his hat to Fassbinder in many eclectic ways. In addition to the readily acknowledged debt to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, there are some quick in-jokes, such as the paperback Franz is reading (Heinz Konsalik's Liebe ist starker als der Tod, "love is stronger than death," brings to mind the playfully morbid title of Fassbinder's first film, Liebe ist kälter als der Tod ("love is colder than death"), as well as some prominent stylistic flourishes. Although I don't want to bog you down in footnoting, let me mention that the strangely unsettling credits sequence – with all of those "off" postcard-like stills of Berlin – is taken directly from the opening of Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, the basic lighting plan primarily recalls Chinese Roulette, the ending suggests a literally darker take on the final scene of Fox and His Friends, but perhaps the most unexpected allusions are to Fassbinder's relatively obscure, but superb, television film, Fear of Fear. Fassbinder often uses mirrors – for metaphorical effect and stylistic flourish – in his films, but Ozon seems to have studied Fear of Fear with special care, because virtually all of that picture's distinctive mirror shots are on display. Yet what is interesting is how subtly, but strikingly, different is Ozon's take on this motif. In Fassbinder's film, some of the most poignant – and chilling – moments come when the silent young daughter peers through a half-open door, her face literally cut in half, as she watches her mother going insane. That little girl is rigid and unmoving. But in the comparable shot near the end of Ozon's film, Franz sways back and forth, as he peaks at the other three characters going at it (offscreen) in Leopold's bedroom – a place which holds many memories for the young man, as he had earlier told Anna. It is a subtle difference, but it does contrast Fassbinder's emphasis on character as idea (the little girl feels more like a symbol than a real child) with Ozon's willingness to breathe a bit more life, and freedom, into the people he explores.

Speaking of symbolism, Fassbinder's tongue-twisting title (in German as in English) of course refers to steam. (Even at the tender age of 19, Fassbinder had begun concocting some of the most mystifying, yet profoundly suggestive, titles of any author.) The metaphorically-inclined might possibly see those "water drops" as doomed humanity falling onto the "burning rocks" of life or love or death or (fill in your own noun of grand proportions).

Comparisons with Fassbinder aside, Ozon has created an exceptional film in his own right: Funny, caustic, stylish, disturbing, and memorable. He has brought a strikingly fresh vision to this wittily pessimistic play of ideas (about love, power, and gender roles) and tangled emotions.

Although Fassbinder might have been surprised by some of the changes (most notably the grafting of one of his most personal later films, In a Year of 13 Moons, onto the final act of one of his earliest plays), you can imagine him reveling in Ozon's accomplished visual style (both allusive and original), his command of narrative rhythm, the richness of the performances he inspired, and even those wonderfully unique moments – like "Tanze Samba Mit Mir" – which just might have set Rainer Werner's own toes a-tapping.

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Crew

  • Directed by François Ozon
  • Written by Ozon, based on R.W. Fassbinder's play, Tropfen auf heisse Steine
  • Produced by Olivier Delbosc, Christine Gozlan, Kenzô Horikoshi, Marc Missonnier, & Alain Sarde
  • Cinematography by Jeanne Lapoirie
  • Edited by Laurence Bawedin & Claudine Bouché
  • Production Design by Arnaud de Moleron
  • Set Decoration by Valérie Chemain
  • Costume Design by Pascaline Chavanne
  • Music:
    • "Tanze Samba Mit Mir" – sung by Tony Holiday and written by T. Pace and F. Bracardi (this is the song used in the dance scene)
    • "Traüme" – sung by Françoise Hardy and written by Martin Böttcher and Fred Weyrich (heard in the middle of the film and over the end credits)
    • Mahler's Symphony No. 4
    • Handel's "Zadok the Priest" (from Coronation Anthems)
    • Verdi's Dies Irae (from Requiem)

Cast

  • Bernard Giraudeau as Léopold
  • Malik Zidi as Franz
  • Ludivine Sagnier as Anna
  • Anna Levine (as Anna Thomson) as Véra

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DVD

Zeitgeist 's DVD offers very good image and sound, as well as some interesting supplemental features described below. Perhaps the most whimsical extra are sing-along lyrics, in both German and English, for the wildly infectious dance number, "Tanza Samba Mit Mir" (which I can't get out of my head). With no soundtrack album available in the U.S., Zeitgeist is to be thanked for including MP3 excerpts from both this and the haunting ballad "Traüme" at their Web site.

DVD Details

Reviewed September 30, 2003

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