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For 25 years French filmmaker François Ozon has explored his fascination with the mysteries of human relationships. By Philippa Hawker.

Director François Ozon

French film director François Ozon.
French film director François Ozon.
Credit: Philippe Quaisse / UniFrance

François Ozon has an ideal spectator for his films: someone who wants a sense of involvement but is also able to be detached. And someone who understands the notion that, in his work, things are not always what they seem. “I try always to be honest with the audience,” Ozon says, “but I like to play. And I think the audience likes to be manipulated, but in a good way.”

What’s important, however, is that the audience can play too. “In front of an American blockbuster you just have to look, but in my films I like to give you the opportunity to make your own film, in a certain way.”

For almost 25 years, Ozon has engaged in a deliberate, often stylised, always inventive approach to the notion of play and provocation. There’s a smooth surface to his films, a poised method that is an intriguing contrast with his interest in situations and characters that violate the status quo, and his frequent exploration of gender, desire and identity against the grain. Genres – melodrama, comedy, the musical, the thriller – can be approached in a highly personal way. Films that touch on social issues do not necessarily come with a point of view.

Ozon’s new film, Everything Went Fine – one of more than 40 movies showing at this year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival – is a characteristically elegant and carefully constructed feature. Its focus is not on the ethics of its subject, the phenomenon of assisted death. Instead, he concentrates on the mysteries of family, of relationships and their repercussions. Of how to understand the people one loves or even hates when they can remain enigmatic, hard to grasp, or defiantly unchanged.

Ozon adapted Everything Went Fine (Tout s’est bien passé) from a 2013 memoir of the same name by the late Emmanuèle Bernheim, a novelist and screenwriter who worked with him on several features. It is Bernheim’s account of what happened when her father, art collector André Bernheim, asked her to help him die. They had a complicated, intense relationship, and there was nothing straightforward about his request and its ramifications, particularly in France, where euthanasia is illegal.

Bernheim, who died of cancer in 2017, had already discussed with Ozon the possibility of making a film from her memoir. “After her death I wanted to reconnect with her, so I read the book again and decided to make the adaptation,” he says.

He and Bernheim met more than 20 years ago, when he had already begun work on what was to become his international breakthrough film, Under the Sand (2000), starring Charlotte Rampling. Under the Sand grew out of Ozon’s childhood holiday memory of seeing a couple on the beach day after day, until suddenly the husband was no longer there. It’s a location that seems to have made its mark on him; in many films his characters face moments of crisis, reflection or transformation by the sea.

Under the Sand, a haunting depiction of a woman’s grief, was a hit for Ozon and it relaunched Rampling’s career. But he says that it was a success that began in failure. “Nobody believed in the script, nobody believed in Charlotte Rampling,” he says, despite her remarkable body of work. “At the time, it was difficult to make films with a mature actress in the principal role.”

Ozon shot the early part of the film, in which the couple are on holiday and the husband disappears after going for a swim. “I showed it to financiers and said, ‘Do you want to see what is going to happen?’ And nobody did. I was very depressed.” He decided to rethink his approach to the aftermath of the husband’s disappearance and felt that he needed a female point of view on the story. His agent introduced him to Bernheim and their working relationship and friendship began.

“Emmanuèle was a very good scriptwriter, she was very helpful in analysing what I wanted to make in my films, what I needed,” Ozon says. “We had many conversations about cinema, and about actors, because she loved actors, and she knew they are part of the story and the script.”

He worked with her on three more screenplays. Swimming Pool (2003), also with Rampling, is in an entirely different register than Under The Sand; it’s a tantalising, sensual mystery about a thriller writer, a young woman and the enigmatic play of creativity. Bernheim also contributed to 5x2 (2004), the backwards narrative of a failed marriage, and the whimsical Ricky (2009), the tale of a baby who inexplicably starts to grow wings.

In adapting Everything Went Fine, Ozon provides more background to some of the internal tensions in the family, as well as bringing out the practical, occasionally comical, challenges of fulfilling the wishes of Bernheim’s father. When it came to finding an actor to play Emmanuèle, Ozon turned to Sophie Marceau (The World Is Not Enough, D’Artagnan’s Daughter), who has barely made a film for the past seven years.

“Sophie is an actress of my generation, I really liked her, and for all the French spectators of my generation she was a kind of goddess,” he says, recalling her as the young star of La Boum, a French teen movie that was a big hit in the 1980s. People think of her as a glamorous, fashionable figure, Ozon says, but the real Marceau is more grounded and down-to-earth. He had offered her roles in four previous films, and she’d said no. “I was very happy that this time she said yes, because I think she was moved and touched by the story. I think there are some resonances with her own story with her father.”

As the overbearing, often scathing father, Ozon cast André Dussollier, a veteran French actor famous for his mellifluous voice; he is the narrator of Amélie and a regular in the films of Alain Resnais. Here he is transformed; prosthetics and make-up help create the physical appearance of a stroke and his voice becomes a croak. “It was a great part for him,” Ozon says. “I think he loved the character. It was an opportunity for him to be so mean, so sadistic. He was like the king of the set; he was in bed and everybody was around him and he could say anything.”

Of the father, Ozon says, “You can see that sometimes he is very charming, very nice, and then he is mean, selfish. At the same time, for me he is great, because he is able to look death in the eyes, he is not afraid. And it was important to show that in this period, in society, occidental society, where death is always hidden, he accepts it, he makes his choice, he wants to die. And there is a kind of courage in this desire.”

Death and mourning have been themes in Ozon’s films since the earliest days – sometimes in a satirical or extravagant fashion, sometimes with a more sober sense of curiosity. In an early short film, Photo de famille – made with the family Super 8 camera, and starring his father, mother and two siblings – a teenage boy cheerfully murders the rest of the family and poses with their bodies in a group portrait on the sofa.

His 2005 feature Time to Leave, about a gay man in his early 30s with incurable cancer, grew out of the notion that it would be interesting to make a film about his own death, after he underwent a series of medical tests that turned out, in his case, to be good news. In his 2009 film The Refuge, he wanted to make a film about maternity, and to explore the idea of “someone who was carrying life, but also mourning”. At the centre of the story is a pregnant woman whose boyfriend has died from an overdose.

 

Born and brought up in Paris, Ozon studied fine arts and cinema before attending the national film school, La Fémis, in 1990. “One of my teachers at university was Eric Rohmer,” he recalls. “You can imagine someone like Rohmer would be very intellectual, but actually it was very concrete. It was about production, about money, about where to buy the least expensive carpet in Paris to use in a film.” To illustrate the development of a screenplay and terms such as wide shot and close-up, Rohmer made students watch the footage of an entire tennis match between Björn Borg and Jimmy Connors.

Ozon says he also learnt a good deal about the realities of production from the hands-on experience of making so many short films. It’s one of the reasons he has been so prolific. He continued to make award-winning shorts before he wrote and directed his first feature, Sitcom (1998), a camp black comedy about a bourgeois family that begins with a characteristic Ozon move, a deceptive opening that turns out to have a very different significance later in the film.

Since then, he has passed swiftly from project to project. “I take holidays, but my subconscious is working,” he says. “There are some projects that sleep in me. I wake up one day and I know it’s time to make the film. I need time, I need time to think, I need to be sure it’s the right moment.”

He has written nine original screenplays and adapted plays as well as several novels and short stories. When he finds something he wants, he is not easily discouraged. When he couldn’t get the rights to remake George Cukor’s 1939 movie The Women, he found an obscure 1960s play that served his purpose; the result was his vivid musical murder-mystery 8 Women, featuring a cast of French actresses spanning generations. When he realised that Ernst Lubitsch had already made a movie adaptation of a play that intrigued him, he was put off at first, then decided to approach the project from an entirely different angle for his 2016 movie Frantz.

“Sometimes when you are shooting a drama, you think, ‘I would like to make a comedy.’ I try not to repeat myself, but very often I realise, shooting a scene, ‘My god, I have already made this scene before,’ ” he says. “But I try each time to go in another direction.”

A few years ago, he decided that he wanted to focus on male vulnerability. This led to his 2018 film By the Grace of God, his first work to be based on a true story. It’s about the experiences of men abused as children by a Catholic priest and their efforts years later to hold him and the church accountable. It’s probably Ozon’s most straightforward film and it leaves no room for doubt about the reality of the abuse: the priest admitted it years earlier. Yet it takes an unexpected narrative approach, changing the focus from one character to another.

As always, a new film follows hard on the heels of the previous one. His latest work, Peter von Kant, has just had its world premiere in Berlin. It’s a homage to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a filmmaker who, along with the likes of Luis Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman, has meant much to him. Ozon’s third feature, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, was an adaptation of an unproduced Fassbinder theatre piece; the new work is a gender-flipped take on Fassbinder’s play-turned-film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant that premiered in Berlin 50 years ago.

Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla, who plays a small but significant role in Everything Went Fine, is also in Peter von Kant. “In the original movie she was the muse, the younger character, and now she’s the mother,” Ozon says. “It’s quite moving to see those two things.”

It feels as if anything is possible for Ozon, but a Hollywood project seems more of a stretch than most things. He values his independence too much. “I have been approached many times, especially after Swimming Pool, but each time I didn’t like the script,” he says. “Once I liked the book. Then when I gave my ideas, I realised that I would have to fight too much, there would be too many compromises.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "Ozon layers".

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Philippa Hawker writes on film and is working on a book about Jean-Pierre Léaud.

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