Short Films of François Ozon

(François Ozon, France, 1994-7)

La Petite mort (Little Death, 1995)

Bedrooms and Bathrooms

Critics have a hard time placing François Ozon. He does not belong in the hallowed tradition of the French Nouvelle Vague, and yet his films are intimate and personal, bearing the mark of his obsessions and recurring fancies. He is hailed as the "poster boy of contemporary queer cinema", and yet his films are pleasing commercial entertainments with no blaring political agenda – and he is equally at ease with male or female, gay or straight subject matter. His films display a very solid, classical sense of storytelling craft, and yet they are mysterious, elliptical, poetic. He has been derided as representing a new, exportable, internationalised 'cinema of French quality', and yet the more one digs into his films, the more one cherishes their sly, perverse aspects.

All this is already evident in Ozon's prolific work in the short-film format predating his official first feature, the outrageously camp Sitcom (1998). Before the well-mounted shorts made in 16mm and 35mm showcased in this DVD selection – some of which relate to his work during and after his time at the French film school FEMIS – Ozon began in a flurry of creativity, signing no less than thirty Super-8 films. In his youth (he was born in 1967), Ozon had come under the formative influence of Joseph Morder, an inspiring figure of the French avant-garde who claimed to see in Ozon's first Super-8 sketches the trace of a Jean Vigo. Morder advised his students to film their daily lives, using family, friends, lovers. This advice was to have a powerful effect on the shape of Ozon's entire career, and is one of the keys to the charm and inventiveness of his work.

It is striking to realise – as these short films amply demonstrate – how completely Ozon's stories, and his way of staging, shape themselves around simple, banal, everyday actions. Getting out of bed in the morning, eating breakfast, going for a walk, going to the beach, having dinner, watching television, heading off to bed again at night ... Ozon loves the domestic routine, especially when that routine is slightly heightened, set askew or outrightly disturbed within the setting of a holiday house.

Within these times and places of everyday life, certain motifs become insistent and meaningful – as surely as they do for a more severe arthouse director like Taiwan's great Tsai Ming-liang. Water, for example. Before everyone else started doing it in movies, Ozon loved to gently immerse his characters' entire bodies under the waterline of a bath – with that momentary, anxious question in our minds as to whether they are dead or drowning suddenly broken by the eruption of the body from the water. Water is a powerful and highly coherent 'binding element' in Ozon's work. It links the apparently tamed, controlled, regulated space of human society – in short, the space of the bathroom, or the swimming pool – with the raging, ever-unpredictable mass of the sea, the space of nature. But always with the possibility of a breakdown in this distinction, a confusion of roles and functions: doesn't Tatiana in See the Sea (1997) – played by the remarkable Marina de Van, another FEMIS graduate who would go on to become a major Ozon collaborator as actor and writer, and also the director of In My Skin (2002) – use the bathroom of her over-trusting host (Sasha Hails) as the site for a perverse disturbance of middle-class family protocol? And the human body is itself, after all, caught exactly in the middle between nature and culture, which is exactly how Ozon dramatises and films its functions – witness the shock ending to the everyday kids' game in Action, Vérité (Truth or Dare, 1994), for instance. In fact, a crucial undercurrent animating events in Ozon's universe is the tendency for the world of nature to seep in, stealthily, through the cracks of the civilised world. This idea – the central theme of Under the Sand (2000) – is given an indelible embodiment in X2000 (1997), in the image of ants crowding in a kitchen and eventually on the central male character's foot.

Bathrooms, and bedrooms: Ozon can easily make an entire film using only these locations, plus all the comic, dramatic, formal possibilities they suggest to him. His most celebrated and effective short is Scènes de lit (Bed Scenes aka Bedtime Stories,1996), an episodic mosaic in the vein of Jane Campion's early triumph of the '80s, Passionless Moments. (Intriguingly, Ozon returned to the episodic format in 5 x 2 [2004], scanning five crucial phases of a couple's relationship.) This is a collection of bed scenes as little vignettes, stories with a droll punchline that sometimes resemble 'urban legends' issuing from the dating scene. Bed is, for Ozon, at once the site of the chummiest, most charming and urbane domesticity, and also the place where everything unravels, where perverse impulses reveal themselves and the unalignments between people become manifest. And it also of course, where the sexually queer aspect of Ozon's art comes to the fore. Queer should be understood here not as strictly gay – although this is a frequent element in Ozon's work, for instance in the beguiling drama of death, orgasm and photography, La Petite mort (Little Death, 1995). Rather, queer refers more generally to the strange, fluid, interchangeable nature of bodies, desires and orientations in these films – best captured in the mix-and-match game of Action, Vérité, or in another image in X2000 of twins discovered in a sleeping bag.

Ozon is today regarded as an extravagant director of high-style. 8 Femmes (2002) revealed his evident kinship with the Technicoloured musicals of Vincente Minnelli or the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. And yet his shorts serve to remind us that Ozon has never been one for ostentatious, fantastic, excessive or overtly surreal images. His style is in fact decidedly simple and straightforward – everyday gestures filmed in a clear, lucid way. It is the accumulation of detail, and the gradually, revealed underlying logic of the story, which produces the enchanting effect of strangeness – and indeed, queerness – in his films. Ozon is in the tradition of quietly sneaky filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel – two other masters of bathroom etiquette and its numerous everyday perversions. (And remember the ants in Un Chien Andalou!)

But Ozon does share something with Hollywood directors of the 1950s like Minnelli and Sirk: a certain force of stylish displacement. The passions that drive Ozon's characters are rarely expressed directly in violent or passionate acts – perhaps only at the very limit of a story, and even then rendered indirectly or off-screen (as in See the Sea). These emotions are displaced from the characters' bodies and find expression elsewhere – in décor, and in music, especially bits of musical quotation like pop standards (hence the aptness of Ozon's tribute to Rainer Werner Fassbinder – the creator of this cool, Pop Art technique – in Water Drops on Burning Rocks [2000]). This use of displaced, indirect emotion is already evident in the early works: a French version of "Bang Bang" (later immortalised in Tarantino's Kill Bill) in the playful gender-and-sex comedy Une robe d'été (A Summer Dress, 1996), or the sacred strains of "Panis Angelicus" accompanying Tatiana's cold, fascinated glimpse at the supermarket meat display in See the Sea.

There is an amusing note of British restraint in Ozon's cinema, expressed most fully in the cat-and-mouse fantasy-thriller Swimming Pool (2003). His films can be momentarily provocative, but in a fundamentally cheeky, rather than enduringly shocking way. The transgressions in his cinema are of the quiet, slow-burning kind that nag at your mind long after the movie has run its course. His films are all about those befuddling, daily encounters – across the breakfast table, in bed, at the seaside resort – where strangers only half-consciously encounter and trigger their mutual 'otherness'. What Ozon films is the volley of bemused or blank gazes that pass between people in such moments – like the beautiful passage of close-ups in See the Sea where Sasha is increasingly nervy and Tatiana is ever inscrutable. Emotion runs high but is rarely spoken or acknowledged; in 8 Femmes, the most scandalous revelations from the family skeleton closet are taken completely for granted by the house's inhabitants. This sensibility of polite fascination is captured well in the events of La Petite mort: a man photographs his dying father (from whom he has long been estranged), assuming he is unconscious – and only when he develops the shots does he realise that the old man awoke, opened his eyes and looked straight into the lens. When his sister mentions this, he feigns ignorance. But Dad was not displeased: in fact, he was happy that, at last, the son had started making his family the subject of his art – just as François Ozon did on Super-8 at the start of his brilliant career.

© Adrian Martin August 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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