Romney, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)
JONATHAN ROMNEY on sex and death in Bavaria
Cinema's great overachiever, Rainer Werner Fassbinder had made more than 30 films by the time he died in his mid-thirties. The young French director Francois Ozon, conversely, has acquired something of a reputation as an underachiever, only because his first two features fell so far below the promise of his early shorts. One of the few French film-makers to have worked convincingly with gay themes, Ozon made a series of provocative, polysexual vignettes, which he then capped with Regarde la mer, a medium-length psychological thriller of fastidious nastiness that matched vintage Roman Polanski. Then came Ozon' s first two features and, as they say in France with a perplexed shrug, "Bof!"
Sitcom was a black comedy about a bourgeois family whose buttoned-up life turns orgiastic, as if John Waters had turned his hand to the world of Claude Chabrol, but the taboos were busted with a mechanical joylessness. Then came Criminal Lovers, a directionless fairy tale about two homicidal teenagers lost in the dark woods: Natural Born Killers meets the Erl-King.
Fortunately, with his third film, Ozon has put on an impressive burst of confidence. Oddly enough, the story concerns a youth who comes under the spell of a charismatic older man -- more or less what has happened to Ozon himself with Water Drops on Burning Rocks. The film is an adaptation of a stage play that Fassbinder wrote at the age of 19, and it makes fascinating viewing if you subscribe to the theory of "anxiety of influence". Young Franz (Malik Zidi) is seduced by the middle-aged businessman Leopold (Bernard Giraudeau), and becomes both his flatmate and his emotional prisoner. Franz is inevitably crushed by his mentor-oppressor, but Ozon -- although apparently submitting to Fassbinder's textual and stylistic yoke -- emerges replenished from the experience.
Water Drops is remarkable less for the drama itself than for what Ozon manages to do with the play's restraints. The drama, divided into acts, takes place wholly in Franz's apartment, and Ozon consistently frames his characters to remind us that the apartment is itself a stage. This is a device often decried as uncinematic, yet it can be the boldest film gambit of all: the challenge is to come right up against film's borderline with theatre, yet still make cinema. The set, by Arnaud de Moleron, seems infinitely adaptable and extendable, a suite of spaces hemmed in by heavy, dark surfaces, but always providing new corners for the action. The look could almost be a pastiche anthology of Fassbinder' s sets: the bedroom an upmarket love nest from Fox and his Friends, the austerely cosy kitchen niche right out of Fear Eats the Soul.
Language itself becomes part of a masquerade that is, above all, sexual. Franz starts off as the image of an idealistic student of the era, leather-jacketed and believing that what counts in life is "books, theatre, art" (trendy students into theatre--now that's retro). …