France (2012). Dir: Francois Ozon, Scr: Francois Ozon
I came out of this film with an uneasy feeling that it was worth quickly checking that my wife really was my wife and my friends really were, well, friends. But it didn’t last long. It was just Ozon, full of mischief. He was being more mischievous than usual. I’d enjoyed a film that was imaginative, very funny, poignant, satirical (of course), well-acted and with music that enhanced each scene. I’d also been carried off to a place where it wasn’t clear what was fact and what was fiction and where longing seeded betrayal but guilt and innocence weren’t pinned down. Consequences were unintended and in a spiral. And it was all possible when, and because, we write stories.
Fabrice Luchini plays Germain, a disaffected school literature teacher who wishes he was a writer. His wife, played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, is the curator of a commercially precarious art gallery. He is aloof in his scorn for her choices for the gallery and insensitive to the pressure she feels at work. But they engage, albeit in slightly distracted language. He is marking the first assignment of the term, deriding the lazy efforts of “the worst class he has ever taught” when he stumbles on something by one of his students, Claude, that he reads out to his wife. Claude, who lives at home with his disabled unemployed father, records how he puts into action his desire to be in the idyllic family house of his friend, Rafa, closing sensually with how he was struck by “the singular scent of a middle class woman”. It feels voyeuristic, manipulative and calculating but it’s a fabulous read. It is also “To be continued…”. Both Germain and his wife take the moral high ground immediately, “He’s making fun of his friend and his mother” she says and he gives it a B+. But the story has them hooked and, in Claude’s inchoate talent, Germain rediscovers his purpose. The film then charts Germain’s deepening involvement with the development of the story and, as the sequence of decisions, actions and consequences progresses, the lines between fantasy and reality become increasingly blurred.
When it comes to the bourgeoisie, Ozon loves picking the wings and legs off the comfy insect. He encourages ridicule at the modern art in the gallery. He makes Rafa’s benevolent father suitably alpha, with mid-level manager anxieties. Both of Rafa’s parents hold dear aspirations that are both pointless and shallow. Ozon also loves the idea of an intruder disturbing the stable protected harmony of the bourgeois unit. He loves kicking off that unpredictable chain of events. And in this film they are kicked off by the young but arrestingly talented Ernst Umhauer, who can perfectly reflect moral ambiguity in an otherwise beautiful face. So, there is much to enjoy in the film’s dark playfulness – in Ozon’s particular take on life imitating art and art imitating life. Some will spot literary references in the title and elsewhere (how bourgeois is that?) and, I think, we forgive a slight messiness towards the end as a moving, optimistic final scene reminds us that there really are a million stories.
Also by Francois Ozon (selection):
Swimming Pool (2003)
8 Women (2002)
Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000)