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Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Ozon playing God


Just a few years back director Francois Ozon was one of France's enfants terribles, his films like "Sitcom" (1998) or "Criminal Lovers" (1999) often mentioned in the same breath as those of Gaspar Noe or Catherine Breillat. These days, though, Ozon is better known for his sensitive, subtly perceptive portrayals of women, in particular his two films with Charlotte Rampling, "Sous le sable" and "Swimming Pool."

News photo
Francois Ozon

In an interview atop the Park Hyatt Tokyo, Ozon is the first to admit that he was much angrier back then, but is quick to add "my films now are just as intense, emotionally. The difference is just a matter of tone."

I ask him if he finds it ironic that "Criminal Lovers," which showed its two lead characters casually murdering a friend, was decried by the critics as "amoral," while "Swimming Pool," a similarly plotted film, is praised to high heaven. Ozon says with a smile, "With 'Criminal Lovers,' the killing was too graphic. They viewed me as some kind of criminal as a result, like I approved of these murders I showed. Superficially, yes, I'm also showing a murder in 'Swimming Pool,' but the point of view is quite different; it's more of a symbol, just an opportunity to bring these two women together."

Nevertheless, two films, two murders, two very different reactions from the viewing public; this must be a lesson in the power a director has to manipulate his audience. "Well, that's the lesson of Hitchcock, isn't it?" replies Ozon. "When you're a director on set, it is like you're playing God. You have to accept that you're manipulating people. With 'Criminal Lovers,' I was giving the audience something very difficult, but without seducing them first. That's different here.

"But manipulation only goes so far; I want viewers to be able to interpret things with a bit of freedom. With Hollywood films, everything's black and white, the plot is spelled out in a very top-down manner. I don't mind leaving a few gaps in the narrative flow, though, and letting people fill in the holes. Like in 'Swimming Pool,' Sarah Morton writes her book in the end, but as to what it's about, that's up to you to imagine."

After the "bitchy murder-mystery" "8 Women," it's easy to see "Swimming Pool" as yet another Ozon foray into Agatha Christie territory, particularly given the film's protagonist who is a sort of homage to Christie and the slightly twisted mind of the mystery writer. So it's a bit surprising to learn that Morton is based on Ozon himself.

"A lot of people ask me about how I work, and where I draw my inspiration from, so I wanted to make a film that would answer that, how I feel about the creative process," the director explains. "But when it came to writing about myself, I felt that rather than creating a character who's the same age, same nationality, same sex, same career, it would be easier to write someone a bit removed from that, with some distance. Since 'Sous le sable' I've felt that somehow I'm able to imagine deeper, more interesting characters when I'm writing for women."

Which brings us to his actresses. Ozon has said he had Rampling in mind even before he'd written the script. When asked whether he was a fan of the actress' scandalous work in the '70s, Ozon says, "I've seen her '70s work, but her personality was still a little shallow, a bit too crazed, too sexual, I didn't feel her humanity coming through. If I had to choose one, I'd say Visconti's 'The Damned,' which I really liked and, of course, her performance in Oshima's 'Max mon amour.'

I point out that the confrontation between Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier in the film almost feels like Rampling's being forced to come to terms with her younger self-image.

"In imagining the character of Julie, I always thought of her as a mirror to Charlotte Rampling," Ozon says. "But it's something every woman, not just actresses, has to go through -- that difficulty with accepting the process of aging, the reality that one loses the beauty of youth. Putting this young, ripe Sagnier right in Charlotte's face, it's a bit cruel, I think. But she's adult enough and intelligent enough to accept this. She's not trying to hide anything or deny anything. Now she's at a point in her life where she can do this."

Couldn't it have been possible, I ask the director, to make this same film about two men? "Yeah," says Ozon, with a laugh, "but then you'd just be redoing Visconti's 'Death in Venice.' "



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