Ozon layer

Film - 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.

We may have seen these places before, and recoiled at the high-collared tweed overcoats, but this is not a standard exercise in Seventies retro. Every visual and cultural reference is quintessentially German - more precisely, Bavarian - and Ozon stresses Germanness both in order to indulge his passion for pastiche and to distance his French audience. He doesn't Gallicise the play at all: we hear a Heinrich Heine poem in the original, and even a Francoise Hardy song has German lyrics.

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). By Act 2, we are seeing a full-blown parody of marital domesticity, with Franz now a servile haus-pet in lederhosen, and Leopold sourly ordering him around.

The next twist comes when the women arrive: Franz's girlfriend, Anna (Ludivine Sagnier, as friskily wide-eyed as a screen ingenue has ever been), and Leopold's ex, Vera, whom Ozon has made transsexual in a nod to another Fassbinder film. Vera is an unsettling casting choice - the American actress Anna Thomson who, here, strangely resembles a haggard drag act trying to pass as Pamela Anderson.

This is, at moments, an exuberantly sexy film, and Ozon does rather more with his cast's bodies and body language than he does with the text, which seems, for the most part, to reiterate the message that (as Fassbinder called his first feature) "love is colder than death". But Ozon is most intrigued by the intricate complications of lust and style: and this is where the casting of Giraudeau is so astute. A hard-boiled matinee idol in the Eighties, Giraudeau now comes across as a faintly unsavoury roue, mixing suavity and bluff cheapness - here, polo-necked and predatory, he is like a spoiled libertine Roger Moore. Ozon presents Fassbinder's play as a dance of sex and death, and the most winning moment is when the four actors execute an incongruously nifty disco dance - a ludicrous bit of showoffery, and perhaps an over-literal metaphor, but a dizzy marvel to behold and a welcome suspension of the overall dark mood.

The end result may not be that substantial. Ozon's attention to Fassbinder's themes seems to yield less than his stylistic invention. And British viewers may, after a while, find themselves on more familiar ground than expected: by Act 3, we come remarkably close to Joe Orton territory. The tart frivolity, in the end, makes the film a touch hollow, and it still feels like something of an intermediate venture for Ozon. But he is moving on - he has already followed it with another feature, his fourth in two years. He could be a Fassbinderian overachiever yet.

Water Drops on Burning Rocks (18) opens on 6 October at the Renoir and Curzon Soho, London

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie