By Michael Martin
I think I would have been a very good director for the '40s and '50s in Hollywood,' says the French director Fran'ois Ozon. 'Do a drama, a musical, a Western.' Except his r'sum' goes more like this: bisexual transvestite short film, elegant death drama, musical murder mystery. His latest is a meditative drama about a pregnant woman detoxing from heroin in the French countryside.
'I don't want to repeat myself,' he says. This is understatement. Fifteen years ago, Ozon was the transgressive's transgressive, the enfant most terrible. His first full-length film, 1998's Sitcom, wove incest and bestiality into a pitch-black comedy about a disintegrating family. A follow-up, Criminal Lovers, involved a thrill-killing teen couple who flee into the forest, where they're imprisoned by a woodsman who indoctrinates the boy to gay sex (and, perhaps, love).
But instead of crafting slight twists on the same transgressive shock wave -- a kind of Gallic John Waters -- Ozon proved he was capable of devastating emotional realism. In 2000's Under the Sand, he cast Charlotte Rampling as a professor whose husband disappears during a beach holiday; she proceeds through life as if he's still alive. Having flirted with flashy transgression and quiet dignity, Ozon deviated from each, contenting himself to be restless, jumping from genre to genre. His two biggest hits followed. Swimming Pool was a psychological thriller about an uptight mystery writer (Rampling again) who becomes entangled with her publisher's promiscuous, violent daughter. 8 Women gathered French cinema icons like Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert in a candy-colored murder-mystery musical. Reviewers of the former referenced Hitchcock; of the latter, one said Ozon had 'out-Almod'vared Almod'var.'
Today, Ozon seems abashed about Criminal Lovers. 'When I was younger, I think I was'more aggressive.' He's 12 floors above midtown Manhattan in a boutique hotel, in town for the U.S. premiere of his latest film, Hideaway (Le Refuge), at Lincoln Center. His r's soften into w's; he wears a striped ascot (tucked into a button-down shirt), and it works for him. 'Because it was one of my first films, I had many things to say, and sometimes it was a little bit messy. You know -- it was maybe too provocative.'
Hideaway is almost deafeningly quiet. It concerns a junkie whose boyfriend dies, leaving her pregnant. His bourgeois family asks her to abort; she refuses. She flees to the family summer home, where she's joined by her late boyfriend's gay brother. The film is conversational, contemplative. 'Doing film after film, you realize you can say very transgressive things in a better way,' says Ozon. With its depiction of an improvised family, Hideaway achieves that. It is also kind of boring. Ozon seems used to this complaint. 'And'now,' he sighs, 'there are some people who think I'm not provocative enough.'
Ozon got his first major attention with the 1996 short film A Summer Dress. In it, a young man, on vacation with his boyfriend, has sex with a girl in the forest, loses his clothes, and has to bike home in her dress. 'At this time in France, the gay community was paralyzed by AIDS,' says Ozon. 'And suddenly there was this small thing that said you can still have sex, you just need to use a condom. People were so happy to see that it was still possible to have a nice sexuality and to have fun. The gay community was very fond of the film, and people used it like a gay flag.'
His next projects, Criminal Lovers and Water Drops on Burning Rocks (an adaptation of a Fassbinder play about a young man who leaves his girlfriend for a manipulative older man and spends a lot of time walking around in skimpy underwear), made him an exciting new gay voice not just in film, but in art in general. But Ozon has been discontent to tote any banners, gay or otherwise. 'My films are more about identity,' he says. 'I like to speak about people who haven't yet decided who they are.'
Hideaway, like many of Ozon's films, hinges on loneliness. Although he decries the idea that it's an essential gay quality -- 'That's a clich' -- it is essential to Ozon, who grew up with four siblings 'at my back.' 'I like loneliness,' he says. 'I need loneliness. I like the idea of having someone to love or to like and to have friends, but I need to be lonely at some moments. It's something sad, but at the same time, it gives you strength to accept yourself, to become yourself.'