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The Story Comes First: An Interview with François Ozon

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By Alex Ramon.

From the patriarchy-busting provocations of his debut feature Sitcom (1998) to the understated elegance of Frantz (2016), François Ozon has created a body of work that’s among the most diverse and confounding in contemporary French cinema. Pegged initially as an enfant terrible, Ozon announced himself as a distinctive voice early on, with the joyous short A Summer Dress (1996) and the bone-chilling See the Sea (1997), before bigger, starrier projects, such as 2002’s musical-farce-murder-mystery 8 Women, brought him international acclaim. Prolific and protean, Ozon has remained defiantly hard to pigeonhole as a director. Yet his work is linked by what Jeanne Moreau (whom he directed in 2005’s Time to Leave) characterised as a subversive “red thread”: a concern with the porous borders of identity, with transgressive sexuality, and with the complex interrelations of death and desire.

With his most recent film, Double Lover (2017), Ozon returns to some of these concerns in a fresh way, producing a delectably twisty erotic thriller that reunites him with Jérémie Renier and Marine Vacth, as protagonists involved in an increasingly bizarre psychiatrist/patient love affair. Taking off from the Joyce Carol Oates story “Lies of the Twins,” the film twists its source into unforeseen territory that’s thoroughly Ozon. I caught up with the director to discuss projects old and new, the pleasures of adaptation, and directing his first music video for Françoise Hardy.

You’ve often said that you like to make a film “against” or in contrast to the one you’ve just made, and the contrast between the sober, classical Frantz and the sexy, twisty Double Lover couldn’t be clearer. When did you first read the Joyce Carol Oates story, and what made you decide that you wanted to adapt it?

OzonFor a long time I’ve wanted to make a film about twins, and when I read the Joyce Carol Oates story I had the feeling that this would be the perfect material for such a film. So I tried to get the rights, maybe four years ago, but the rights were in America and they were blocked, so it was impossible. I then made Frantz, and after that my producer told me that we had obtained the rights after all, and that we could go ahead with the film.

Did you see the previous adaptation from 1991, with Aidan Quinn and Isabella Rossellini?

I did see it, on YouTube. It’s very bad. But quite funny: a guilty pleasure, you know. I felt like: OK, this is all the bad things you could do with the story; they did that, and I will try to make something better!

How was the casting process? Did you write with Jérémie Renier and Marine Vacth in mind, and what was it like to reunite with them?

Actually, no, I didn’t write it with Jérémie and Marine in mind. I went to various actors before, especially for the male role. I went to a very famous French actor, and he loved the script, but when I changed some things, especially adding the scene with the dildo, he was so shocked that he said: “You have to cut the scene or I won’t do the film.” So I realised then that I needed actors who would trust me, who were not afraid of the film or of the sex scenes. So I decided it would be best to work with actors I’d worked with before. Marine and Jérémie are good friends of mine. But of course I didn’t know if the chemistry between them would work, so I made some tests and they read some scenes together. Immediately I could see that they were on the same level. It was a real pleasure to see them together; they had great chemistry from the start.

And how was the collaboration with Jacqueline Bisset?

It was great! Of course Jacqueline Bisset was very famous in France in the ’70s and ’80s for films she made there, including Day for Night. I wanted a beautiful woman to be the mother of Marine Vacth, and I was looking for a woman with a feline face and beautiful eyes. This led me to Jacqueline, and she came from Los Angeles specially to do the film.

Hitchcock and De Palma are the obvious reference points for the film, but tell me more about the visual style. I especially like the scenes in the gallery, with Marine Vacth as Chloe sitting among the exhibits. How did you choose the pieces for these scenes?

We made this exhibition ourselves. We shot the scenes in the Palais de Tokyo, a very beautiful place, and we made our own exhibition, because really the important thing is that the exhibits are a projection of Chloe, reflecting what’s going on in her mind. I worked with a new DP, a Belgian, Manuel Dacosse, this time. We wanted a very clinical, cold colour to the images, and I think it worked well.

Did you hear that a film website was banned from Facebook recently for posting the topless shot of Marine that’s been used in some promotions for the film?

Double 02Actually, I had the same problem! When we decided on the promotional image before presenting the film at Cannes last year, I put the picture of the two naked actors on Facebook, with Marine’s breasts visible. And I ended up getting banned from Facebook for a week. Finally we changed the image, covering Marine’s nipples with little squares. I guess if you posted some classical art, the Venus de Milo for example, you could end up in the same situation. It’s very strange.

Do you think this says something about our cultural moment, which seems so pornographic on the one hand and weirdly puritanical on the other?

Well, Facebook is American, that’s the key! They are always so extreme, in both directions.

Do you have any comment about #MeToo?

I think it’s a great movement, a great thing that women express themselves in this way, and I support it. It will oblige some powerful men to change their behaviour. In France it was a bit different because we had “Balance ton porc” (“Call out your pig”), which was a very aggressive statement, not inclusive like #MeToo.

People always talk about the diversity of your cinema, but it seems to me that there are several recurring strands and themes. Are your conscious of returning to particular ideas and topics?

Tell me which themes you see.

For one, I think that there is often a loss or absence that occurs in your films and the protagonist attempts – or maybe refuses – to make some replacement or substitution for the person that’s gone. That’s true for films as diverse as Under the Sand, Le Refuge, The New Girlfriend, Frantz, and even Double Lover, in a way.

You know my work well, thank you. What you say is true; I see the connection. But I’m not always aware of it, you know. I’m not the kind of filmmaker who analyses their films so much; I don’t know, maybe I should! But I make the work, and for me once the film is done, it’s done. I don’t have time to analyse.

Do you ever re-watch your older films?

Generally, no. Maybe if it’s on TV I might watch it. And sometimes I have tenderness for myself because I made some mistakes. Now in France there is a policy of digitalisation so I have to re-watch some old films, and often I would like to cut things. In fact, it’s not forbidden to do that but at the same time I think, well, it’s part of me, it’s what it is. Let’s see what I can achieve next time.

I also appreciate the sense of privacy that you give to your characters, who are often presented alone and frequently have a solitary, set-apart quality. It creates a strong bond between the character and the viewer. Are those moments that you build into your scripts or ones that you find naturally during the shoot?

My films are very often about the search for identity. With Double Lover, for example, Chloe is trying to discover something, to find out something about herself, this mystery inside. And it’s true that very often during shooting I add some scenes in which the characters are alone to help the audience experience this journey. Sometimes all you need is a close-up of the face of your actor. You don’t ask him or her to act but you know that you can use the scene during the editing. A film needs some “blanc” moments like this, to give you the opportunity to think, to project some feelings, and make a bond, as you say.

You recently worked with Françoise Hardy on the video for her new song, “Le Large.” How did that project come about?

I’m a big fan of Françoise Hardy, but I’d never made a video clip before. The company called me and said, “François, we’d like to propose that, as your first video, you make the last video of Françoise Hardy!” And this was just two weeks before I started shooting my new film. So I said, “OK, let me think, and let me listen to the song.” And the song is very charming. I don’t know if you read the lyrics but it’s very melancholic, about saying goodbye, and, really, about death. And I knew that Françoise Hardy had had a serious accident a few years ago, and she was in a coma, and that this was her comeback. So I thought, it’s now or never, and I said yes. I know she has strong opinions about things. We met and I told her: “I want to make you a Bergman figure.” She said: “What?!” And she knows Bergman’s work very well, she’s a real cinephile, but she wasn’t sure what I was planning. She just said: “I hate to be filmed.” I wanted to put her in a nightdress like Liv Ullmann in Persona, and she said “No way!” Still, with all these conditions, she made the video and I think she was pleasantly surprised. After all, Françoise doesn’t live her life as an icon, and my film is very much about her as an icon, with the character of the boy, who’s like a projection of myself as a young man: a fan of Françoise Hardy. So she said it’s not really what the song is about, but she enjoyed it. For me, it was a very good experience.

Would you like to come back to England to make a film? You had a good time making Angel, right?

Yes, but Angel was a big flop in England. People didn’t like it at all. But yes, if I find the right project I would be happy to come back. Actually there is a book that I really loved and I would have loved to make a film of it in English: Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. But Richard Eyre got the rights first and apparently he is a very good friend of McEwan. I heard that the film is not so good…. If it is bad then maybe I’ll do my own remake!

You’ve often adapted literary texts, whether it’s Angel or Ricky or In the House or Double Lover. What do you like about that process?

It’s easier, you know! You have a base to start from. Generally, I work on authors who are dead so I feel that I can “betray” them if I want to! And very often it is a free adaptation that I make. When I love a book and it’s something that makes my imagination work, it’s a good base.

Which films have you seen recently that you liked or that inspired you?

Double 03It’s not a new film but in France I recently saw a re-release of a Robert Mulligan film that impressed me very much. I didn’t know about it before. It’s a film from 1963, with a very sexy cast, Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen, and it’s called Love with the Proper Stranger. It’s beautiful, about two children of Italian immigrants in New York. They have sex, the girl becomes pregnant, and they try to find the money for an abortion. So it’s very unusual for an American film of this time. It feels more like a European film, very fresh, very strong. Natalie Wood was amazing as an actress. She seems so modern.

What’s your next project?

It’s already shot and I’m editing it now. I can’t reveal too much, but I will tell you that it’s a film about men. A portrait of three different men, and it’s based on a true story. It was a challenge for me because it’s based on events that are very well-known in France, so I had to respect some facts of chronology and situation. And the people involved are still alive. So, a big challenge!

You’ve made musicals, comedies, dramas, thrillers…. Are there any genres you’d still like to work in?

To be honest, it’s not about the genre for me. It’s about the story every time. When I’m attracted to a story, then I find a genre to fit it, or to adapt it to. So if something comes up that fits a science fiction movie, then, sure, I would do it. Anything can happen! But, for me, the story always comes first.

Double Lover is released in the UK on 1 June.

Alex Ramon is a lecturer and critic currently based in Łódź, Poland. He is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields and has written and presented papers on Guy Maddin, Sarah Polley, Rawi Hage, Mordecai Richler, and Iris Murdoch. He has interviewed various directors, writers and actors including Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Chyra, and Samuel Adamson. His current projects include a study of novel-to-film adaptations. He writes for PopMatters and British Theatre Guide and blogs at Boycotting Trends.

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