Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Twilight Ozon

The French get a bad rap in America, which really is too bad, because they are fabulous hosts. Except when the air conditioning isn't working, or when party guests can roam an entire floor of a Beaux Arts masterwork without finding a place to sit down. Or when they insist on always speaking French, a hallmark of their people that never fails to drives me insane.

But neither language nor Monday's sweltering humidity was enough to spoil the fun at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, the uptown haunt that welcomed director Francois Ozon to celebrate the release of his latest film, 5x2. Ozon had arrived in New York the day before to introduce a screening of the picture at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria; a subsequent Q&A closed the museum's week-long Ozon retrospective, to which the 37-year-old filmmaker reacted with winking concern (in English, thank God) that his career was ending prematurely.

It was the joke that launched a thousand toasts Monday evening. Fellow auteurs John Waters and Lodge Kerrigan dropped in to pay their respects, as did Ozon's stateside distribution allies Nancy Gerstman of Zeitgeist Films and ThinkFilm chief Mark Urman. ThinkFilm will launch 5x2 in New York this Friday, June 10.

So, Francois, a transvestite walks into a bar with a pile of shit in her hands and says, "Look what I almost stepped in." (Photos: STV)

5x2 uses reverse chronology to tell the story of Gilles and Marion, a married couple who "begin" the film finalizing their divorce before Ozon guides us backward through the events that precipitated their breakup (the title alludes to five episodes in the pair's shared life). It is not Ozon's most original work—Gilles' beard and tousled hair at the film's opening makes him suspiciously resemble Scenes From a Marriage-era Erland Josephson, and the couple's harrowing sex scene that closes the introduction reminds me of the blunt force trauma that plunges viewers into Gaspar Noe's reverse-chronological Irreversible (which also, however more graphically, chronicles a relationship's dissolution).

Ozon acknowledged the Bergman homage and even 5x2's self-referentiality (langourous, stoned dancing that polishes a more awkward scenario in 2003's Swimming Pool, for example). "When you make a film a year, sometimes you will have the feeling you have made a scene before," he told me. "Sometimes it's good if you can try to make something better than you did before."

It was good indeed—far superior in mood, impact and even music than Charlotte Rampling's discomfiting, Al Gore-esque lurch. That aside, it moved the piece along with a momentum I never perceived in Swimming Pool. The momentum stalled by the middle of the third episode, however, during which Gilles broods over lunch, cigarettes and rain while Marion labors alone in childbirth. The conflict flattens—Gilles unqualified isolation is so pronounced that the viewer is left to wonder how and why their relationship could continue with the broken passion Ozon portrays in his opening.

Asked if he thinks the storytelling device works, Ozon shrugged and confessed he didn't know. "I wanted to start with the drama and end with the comedy," he said. "Some people like it, some are disturbed by it." He also—if only for a moment—invoked the mythic American/French cultural fissure that may explain why some aesthetic choices just don't resonate with audiences used to a more conventional narrative.

And you know, it is a convenient excuse, but he's probably right to some degree. In fact, even Memento owed more to a non-linear and aesthetic (i.e. black-and-white and color) structure than a pure backwards-driven narrative. The film's amnesia gimmick milks the viewer's indulgence in even more sophisticated ways, tricking audiences into thinking the backward narrative is actually told backwards, as opposed to confessing that its director, Christopher Nolan, starting at the only place the narrative could have started—at the protagonist's most recent memory. 5x2 works similarly, if only by accident. In light of relationship dramas that preceded and influenced him—Bergman's Scenes, in particular, which Ozon freely asserts is the "best film ever made about a couple"—Ozon's gimmick almost feels essential, if maybe half-hearted.

Oh--*sob*--zat ees a good one, John.

At any rate, the guy can obviously direct actors, and he must be doing plenty more right for a bona-fide genius like John Waters to proclaim himself a fan. "I've liked him from the very beginning," Waters said Monday, white wine in hand and his trademark sly smile in place. "(Ozon's films) are so surprising. They're so different, and he's a master of every genre that he does." For his part, Waters is preparing for next week's DVD release of A Dirty Shame, which he pledges outdoes even the NC-17 theatrical release with plenty of never-before-seen raunch, including demonstrations of Johnny Knoxville's autoerotic prowess.

Lodge Kerrigan, whose upcoming film, Keane, made an appearance at Cannes' Director's Fortnight last month and is set for a fall release through Magnolia Pictures, also had nothing but praise for Ozon. "He has tremendous control of his craft, and great versatility in the genres he works in," Kerrigan said.

Kerrigan added that he has yet to see 5x2, but had plenty to say about the prospect and potential of experimental narratives. "It seems very simple on a certain level," he said. "You have to find the right narrative structure and the right aesthetic that is appropriate for the content in any film. Obviously, we work in an industry where there are commercial considerations. But ultimately, you have to remain true to what it is you're trying to express."

And before the age of 40, Ozon has made his name in New York doing exactly that. So who the hell am I to judge, even if he does have that whole French thing going on?


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