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Touchingly reverent as it is in rendering the cruel Fassbinderian ironies of sexual power struggles, François Ozon's Water Drops on Burning Rocks, his film adaptation of an unproduced play by the late German wunderkind, has nonetheless sealed its director's reputation as the chief provocateur of the new French cinema (apologies to the hardcore-in-every-sense Bruno Dumont). "A French journalist said that with this film I fucked over Fassbinder's corpse," says Ozon, "and that Fassbinder would have loved to have been fucked that way. It was a compliment."
Giddily poised between homage and pomo experiment, Water Drops (currently playing at Film Forum) is Ozon's third feature in two years. (He followed a series of breezy, sexually frank shorts and 1997's bloodcurdling featurette, See the Sea, with the knowingly shrill anti-bourgeois satire Sitcom and the true-crime fairy tale Criminal Lovers, which opens next Friday at the Quad.) Ozon says Water Drops arose from a desire to make a film about the day-to-day perilsand the deeper psychic hazardsof coupledom. But, he explains, "When I wrote about my own experiences, I found myself strugglingit was too pathetic. Then I remembered this Fassbinder play, and it touched all the right chords. It was also a way to pay tribute to a filmmaker who's not so well remembered these days."
Ozon, who says that Fassbinder's seamless integration of the formal and the emotional "gave me the cue to what I could do as a filmmaker," made a number of changes to the posthumously discovered play, which Fassbinder wrote when he was 19. He updated it from the '60s to the '70s and exaggerated the age difference between the couple19-year-old Franz and his seducer, Leopold, who is 35 in the original, 50-ish in the movie. ("Today it's common to find 35-year-olds who are much less mature than Leopold," says the 32-year-old.) He also amplified the role of Franz's ex-lover, Vera"you could say there was a hint of misogyny in the original"with a bit of backstory lifted directly from In a Year of 13 Moons. Ozon circumvents the problems of stage adaptation by hyperbolizing the theatrics: He co-opts the flat, minimally glossy style of Petra von Kant and translates the dialogue into French, though the setting remains Germany. "Maintaining the theatricality was a way of keeping my emotional distance from the subject," says Ozon, "which is a policy of mine."
In the tabloid-inspired Criminal Loverswhat Natural Born Killers might have resembled had Oliver Stone been fascinated less with Jung than with Bruno BettelheimOzon effects this policy with a fairy-tale framework: Teen vamp Alice (The Dreamlife of Angels' Natacha Regnier) and her timid boyfriend, Luc (Jeremie Renier), kill a schoolmate and escape into the woods, where an ogre imprisons them and seduces Luc. "True-crime cases and fairy tales are both essentially about fantastic, incredible stories," he says. Yet another twist on the established Ozon double bill of sex and death (one of his short films was titled La Petite Mort), Criminal Lovers plays like a free-associative trawl through residual childhood traumas (the director's favorite fairy tale is Hansel and Gretel, and he admits to a boyhood fear of the woods). "This story resembles some of my nightmares which I can't fully decode," he says. "I made every effort to write the film as if it were a nightmare, which you can then in the morning make sense of. Or not." (The iconography morphs at warp speed: Bonnie and Clyde, Hansel and Gretel, Adam and Eve.) The film does invite a psychoanalytic reading, which the filmmaker himself is happy to provide: "It's the story of two people who haven't been able to face their desires and sublimate the desires by killing them."
Ozon rejects the suggestion, already proffered by several critics, that Alice's castrating bitch is a misogynistic portrait. "She's really romantic and she's looking for a way to make something out of the experience of death. Alice tries to control everything and she's compelled to build scenarios around her life. She may not be sympathetic, but I identify with that." Ozon says he has no qualms embracing the director's role of manipulator. "You have to admit that, in organizing the shoot, you are manipulating everything. You have to admit your own sadism, and your will to control. Sadism is its own proof of attachment and concern. My films don't work within the realm of identification with characters. I'm most excited by films where the signifiers are unclear and destabilized." (He cites as his favorite contemporary filmmakers Cronenberg and Dumont.)
Casually bold in their depictions of sexuality and desire, Ozon's movies are closer to the spirit of the New Queer Cinema than any currently being produced in America. "Most gay films speak about the cause or the movement before they speak about life. My subjects are often adolescents who are just discovering their sexual urges, discovering that there are hundreds of possibilities. I've always thought my films are less about homosexuality than bisexuality, though in San Francisco, I was warned not to say that." He pauses and adds with a laugh: "Can I say that in New York?"