François Ozon: the new new wave

Satirical wit, freewheeling sexuality and a new wave cinematic sensibility? François Ozon, director of ‘Sitcom’, ‘Swimming Pool’ and, now, ‘The New Girlfriend’, is a most French film-maker, and despite Hollywood overtures he refuses to change his style


François Ozon first came to prominence in 1998, when Sitcom, his debut feature, won over critics and an international audience. The Paris-born film-maker was quickly heralded as an exciting poster boy for New French Extremism or New Queer Cinema.

But although the acerbic wit and playful sexuality of Sitcom seemed to nestle snugly under either or both of those remits, his subsequent work defies easy characterisation. “With every movie I try to go in other directions,” says the 47-year-old.

Quite so. 8 Women brought together France’s grandest dames for a 1950s-set musical murder mystery; 5x2 plays five key scenes from a divorced couple’s relationship backwards; Swimming Pool exuded Hitchcockian menace as Charlotte Rampling became a young woman’s reluctant caregiver and voyeur; Potiche saw Catherine Deneuve, as a rejected trophy wife, lead her husband’s employees to rebel.

Many of Ozon’s films are smaller, more tightly focused; Time to Leave sees a young man push everyone away as he enters the final stages of terminal cancer; Water Drops on Burning Rocks is a filmed adaptation of an early Rainer Werner Fassbinder play.

“Fassbinder was very influential during my education,” says Ozon. “He makes very different movies. And the way he could speak about the history of Germany so well through his work. He does not always try to create a masterpiece but to create a body of work. And he works with the same actors. It’s these things that made me think that I could make a film. When you see this kind of smaller film it is an inspiration.”

Guilty pleasures

Douglas Sirk

“I actually came to Sirk through Fassbinder,” he says. “Both Fassbinder and Godard wrote about him at a time when he was considered very old fashioned. People thought that Sirk made silly American melodramas. But Fassbinder and Godard saw something more than guilty pleasures.”

Ozon’s latest film, The New Girlfriend (Une Nouvelle Amie), seems to bring together both strands of his work into a teasing package. The film stars Romain Duris as a widower who increasingly embraces his alternative female personality just as Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), his late wife’s best friend, increasingly takes on masculine garb.

“I’m always interested in couples,” says Ozon. “And I’m interested when a woman is discovering something about herself. I like the idea of Simone de Beauvoir: one is not born but, rather, becomes a woman. He wants to become a woman, but, in a different way, she wants to become a woman too.”

Ozon has frequently explored gay themes, but his movies are also populated by bisexuals, transsexuals, heterosexuals and plenty of characters who can be filed under Q for questioning rather than Q for queer.

“Each time I make a film I don’t have to generalise about the situation,” says Ozon. “Certain people were shocked when I made Young & Beautiful, because it was about a young prostitute. But it was just one character in one film. I wasn’t trying to generalise. It was a special story about special people. It is more interesting to show complexity than to try to generalise about men and women.”

Strong women

The New Girlfriend

“I do feel more comfortable to write a character for a woman,” says Ozon. “When I write a character for a man I have this feeling of being in front of myself or looking in a mirror.

“I realised after I made Under the Sand with Charlotte Rampling that it was maybe my most personal movie. Because it was easier to write about the intimate feelings I had at that time of my life because of the distance between me and the character of a 50-year-old woman.”

Rampling is one of many actors who have returned again and again to the troupe of Ozon players. Others include Ludivine Sagnier and Catherine Deneuve.

“There is a lot of pleasure in working with women,” says Ozon. “Very often actresses are more pleasurable and easier to work with than men. There are some actors I work with and once is enough. But there are others, like Charlotte, who have a depth and maturity.”

What is it, I wonder, about French cinema’s love affair with a certain kind of British woman, such as Rampling, Jane Birkin and Kristin Scott Thomas.

“In France we have a fascination with foreign actresses,” Ozon says. “One of the most popular French actresses of the 1970s was Romy Schneider, who was German. And then there are the English actresses who fell in love with French men and come to France. They often tell me the French offer very good parts as a woman gets older. In England or America they get to play the mother or the grandmother.”

Ozon has had Hollywood offers since Swimming Pool became a global sensation, in 2003. But the director is not for turning.

“In America, film is not about art or culture. It’s a business. So they make movies for teenagers, because it’s easier. And they have a different way of working. The producer does not direct the film, but they do make all of the decisions. The director is a technician more than an artist. I don’t want to work that way. I don’t feel the necessity of losing my soul.”

On Ruth Rendell: “It’s never just a crime story”

The New Girlfriend marks another big-screen European outing for the late Ruth Rendell, whose works have proved remarkably adaptable across cultures: think Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (1995) and Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (1997). “I prefer adaptations of certain English writers,” says François Ozon, who previously adapted Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel. “I’m fascinated by writers like PD James and Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie. Ruth Rendell was a big inspiration for Swimming Pool. We talked about her a lot while shooting. She is a great writer, but she is also very strong on social background and the divisions of English society. It’s never just a crime story. The New Girlfriend is about the complexity of a relationship. It’s a very short story. Just 15 pages. I slightly changed the end, but I tried to keep faithful to her spirit.”

The New Girlfriend opens on May 22nd

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