Dir: Francois Ozon. France. 1999. 90 mins.
Prod cos: Fidelite Productions, Les Films Alain Sarde. Int'l sales: Roissy Films-Celluloid Dreams (+33 1 4970 0370). Prods: Olivier Dubosc, Marc Missonier. Scr: Francois Ozon, based on a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. DoP: Jeanne Lapoirie. Prod des: Arnaud de Moleron. Ed: Laurence Bawedin. Main cast: Bernard Giraudeau, Malick Zidi, Ludivine Sagnier, Anna Thompson.
Though snubbed by the Berlinale jury, France's 'enfant terrible' Francois Ozon should be credited with the most irreverent and refreshing entry in the official competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Adapted from a youthful play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ozon's most controlled film to date has taken a claustrophobic character study of the relationship between an older insurance salesman and a young student and turned it into an often sardonic but always absorbing observation of human beings enslaved by their addiction to sex.
With Fassbinder, but also Sirk, Sternberg and Resnais in mind, Ozon sets the play, which the author never produced on stage or adapted for the screen, in the confines of a single flat, where sexual activity, whether straight or gay, is treated in a matter-of-fact manner. Using theatrical devices, such as clearly defined separate acts, Ozon coolly observes the affair between the two men, from first encounter to its tragic end. Leopold, the fiftyish roue, may be intellectually inferior to the culture-hungry kid picked out on the street, but emotionally he is definitely the dominant partner. Their troubled liaison involves not only sex but also sado-masochistic power play in which the two accomplices constantly change roles, indicated at the end of each act by the reversal of their positions in bed. The dramatic intrusion of two women in the last act allows Ozon to turn the screws even more, leading his characters into a stunning finale which faithfully reflects both Fassbinder's despair and Ozon's own brand of irony.
An admirer of German culture, Ozon uses the language to great effect, not only for a Heine quote, but also for songs inserted as musical comments in an otherwise French-language production. Ozon has made several changes to Fassbinder's original text, but his stylised approach to sets and costumes, hinting at the period of the play without depriving it of its timelessness, is always effective and his direction of the cast admirable. A tour-de-force performance from Bernard Giraudeau as Leopold reinforces one of the more satisfying items displayed this year in Berlin. Restricted by subject and treatment to arthouse cinemas, careful handling could easily turn this film into a cult item.