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Can Hollywood Understand French Director François Ozon?

The night before I met up with the quite-famous-in-France film director François Ozon, he’d gone to see The Book of Mormon. It left him puzzled. “I didn’t get all the jokes,” he says. “I didn’t really understand why people loved it so much, actually … I know the religion is so important in America, so maybe the play is very subversive for you, but for me it was not enough. We don’t know so much Mormon in France because it doesn’t really exist, so for us it’s like another world, you know? It’s very American, and I think the play won’t come in France.”

Ozon is one of the most prolific, perverse, and creatively agile directors in France, and his cross-cultural potential is sometimes compared to Pedro Almodóvar’s. Still only 45, he’s made fifteen films in sixteen years. In that time, he’s been just as unafraid to give ’em what they want — say, a campy old-Hollywood-style musical murder mystery starring Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert called 8 Women — as he is to give ’em something feverish, drab, metaphorical, and extremely French, like Ricky, about the difficulties for a working-class family trying to raise a mutant baby born with wings. If you know him, it’s probably for 2003’s Swimming Pool, starring Charlotte Rampling as an inhibited middlebrow mystery-book writer who goes away to her publisher’s house in the south of France to recharge, only to find that she’s sharing it with his promiscuous daughter. She cribs from the girl’s diary, and possibly — who can really say in an Ozon film? — a murder is committed and covered up. Certainly a book is written, which is what, one suspects for someone who makes as many movies as Ozon does, really matters.

His new film, In the House, came out last fall in France and arrives in New York this month at Lincoln Plaza and the Sunshine. Although Ozon has written most of his films, this one was based on a Spanish play about a restless, frustrated high-school teacher who sees talent in a troubled student. The kid, Claude, has written a creepy, evocative essay about his obsession with the alluringly normal, comparatively prosperous family of a classmate, especially the MILF-y matriarch, and his desire to savor “the singular scent of a middle-class woman” (a phrase that sounds slightly more amorously plausible in French). The teacher is alarmed, but he’s at last interested in something one of his students has produced and decides to mentor the boy — “to teach him literature, and something about life,” as he puts it to his skeptical wife (played by Kristin Scott Thomas). She has her own issues with artistic viability: She runs a money-losing avant-garde gallery in this provincial town, exhibiting blowup sex dolls that have the heads of Hitler and Stalin, and she’s about to lose her job.

Ozon’s parents were teachers who were often depressed by their work and confused by their son. “Maybe I was too strange. And I was quite violent at school. When I said, ‘I want to do movies!,’ they were afraid — ‘Why?’ They didn’t know they could help me. I was not a good student. But when
I began to study cinema, I become one of the best. They were happy to see I had a passion and good work.”

His early short Photo de Famille, made in 1988, starred his family, and he had his brother kill them all and then pose their bodies for a picture on the sofa. “They were pleased with that,” he says. “My mother said, ‘If you do that in film, you won’t do that in reality. So that’s much better. Kill us in your films, but not in life.’ I think my parents were very clever. Very young, they said to me: ‘When you talk, you can do what you want. You can read. You can see. You can read the books you want. You can imagine what you want. But life is different.’ And to do the distinction between reality and fiction — which that’s maybe why in my films I like to mix reality and fiction.” And to forget which is which? “And to decide everything is true. To say, everything you desire, everything you want, is reality.”

One of In the House’s great pleasures is the vertiginous feeling of how unsettled the ground beneath the characters’ feet really is. When I meet him for coffee and disappointing croissants one recent Sunday morning at the Mercer Hotel, he, like Claude, very nearly sparkles with patient mischief. Movie reality, he’s often said, has saved him from boring actuality. “For me, the young guy in In the House, who cannot find his way in real life, finds his way in fiction, that is exactly François,” says his producer, Eric Altmeyer.

The thing Ozon and his characters seem to fear most is simply boredom, the inevitable enervation of a responsibly settled self. In Ozon’s first feature, 1997’s See the Sea, a new mother, understimulated while waiting for her husband to arrive at their beach house, lets a clearly disturbed backpacker pitch her tent in the yard. “Sure, she can see this girl is dangerous,” he says of the mother. “You need to have excitement in your life. Sometimes it’s exciting to go close to the danger and be [in a] very tense situation.” One of his less admired films (at least in America, where its many seventies French-pop-culture references are untranslatable) is 2010’s women’s-lib farce Potiche, starring Deneuve as a put-upon trophy wife who has to take over her husband’s umbrella factory. Like 8 Women, it’s animated with a kind of stylish drag-queen triumphalism, right down to the song she sings in the end.

Ozon was for years tagged an enfant terrible: good-looking, gay, precocious. To many in the très sérieux French film world, his willingness to simply be entertaining without appearing to suffer for his art is inherently a cause for however you say “haterism” in French. His only English-language film, 2007’s Angel, addresses this: It’s the parable of a breathy, ­hyperambitious young Victorian pop novelist and her artist husband, Esmé (Michael Fassbender). Angel is self-assured and self-creating from the start, declaring, “I am going to be a writer! A famous writer!” At one point, when she and Esmé need money, she simply sits down to write another best seller, saying, “Don’t be silly; you just have to give the public what they want!” Complicating all this knowingness is the fact that Angel was possibly Ozon’s biggest flop — too English for the French and not English enough for the English. It was never distributed in America.

He’s been courted often by Hollywood, and, thanks to his success with Rampling and Deneuve, by English and American actresses. But so far he’s sticking closer to home, where — like teenage Angel, who told her first publisher, “No, I won’t change a single word or comma of my book” — he has the control he wants. “In France, we are not in the same system than here in Hollywood, and because my films are not expensive, it’s very often very low budget. [So] we do what I want. I’m not sure I would be able to work in the American system … I think it’s another way of thinking, the producer is so important.”

There’s also the Book of Mormon problem. In the House’s “normal” family, the one Claude fetishizes, is theoretically American in style, almost parodically so, from the ­sitcom-worthy suburban house to the fixation on basketball. The whole thing is, of course, thoroughly French. 

*This article originally appeared in the April 29, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: null/Courtesy of Cohen Media Group