ALISTAIR Harkness finds there’s still enough of the enfant terrible left in François Ozon for him to make a stir.
IT’S the curse of any upstart French filmmaker to be labelled an enfant terrible, but François Ozon no longer cares about such things. Well, not really – he does have a technical objection. “I am not young anymore,” he says, a sly smile breaking across his face..
At 45, the director is hardly old – even if his prodigious output in the 15 years since making his debut with the entertainingly outré Sitcom probably qualifies him for veteran status. Jumping between satire-leaden farce (Sitcom, 8 Women), serious drama (5x2, Time to Leave), psychological thriller (Under the Sand, Swimming Pool) and frivolous comedy (Potiche), his diverse CV could be the envy of many a retirement-age filmmaker.
Ozon has got a great eye for new talent, has long recognised the cinematic value of older actors, and is on familiar enough terms with Catherine Deneuve to put the style icon in rollers and a red tracksuit in Potiche. “Everyone has seen her in so many films for so many years, so you have to deal with that,” he says. Like Pedro Almodóvar, he seems to enjoy flirting with respectability and ridiculousness.
“I was the enfant terrible, now I don’t know what I am,” he says, circling back to external perceptions of his work. “But from the beginning I understood that the important thing for me was not to provoke indifference.”
Such things have been much on his mind of late because his new film, In the House, is all about the nature of creativity. Revolving around Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a jaded high-school teacher who becomes increasingly obsessed with a promising writing student called Claude (newcomer Ernst Umhauer), the film delights in blurring the line between fact and fiction as Claude’s stories – detailing his efforts to insinuate himself into the comfortable life of his best friend – begin to affect both Germain’s bourgeois life with his art-dealer wife (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), and Claude’s perceptions of his own place in the world.
“I think it’s a film about my process of creation,” elaborates Ozon. “I have to make movies to escape reality, but that’s why art exists: to help us support our own reality and have some irony about our own lives.”
It’s certainly not hard to spot a little of Ozon in both characters. “Claude has no problem with inspiration,” nods the prolific filmmaker. “The film is about working out how to tell a story. Which direction do you go? Do you do it as drama, comedy, as melodrama? There are all these possibilities. And then there’s the collaboration with the teacher, who could be a producer, a director, or a critic helping a young artist to find his own story.”
Ozon was a bad student himself, rebelling against his teacher parents and repeatedly taking issue with authority. It wasn’t until he went to film school that he found a mentor whom he respected enough to let help shape his development. That the teacher just happened to be Éric Rohmer may suggest Ozon was so full of himself that it took a master filmmaker to get through to him, but he is genuinely in awe of opportunity he had to study under the late director.
“He was very pragmatic about film and what it was,” he recalls. “He was not intellectual about it at all, which was very helpful in crystallizing my idea of cinema.”
Watch Ozon’s films and it becomes clear that one of the earliest ideas he had about cinema was that women should be prominent participants in its stories. Ozon, however, seems to be growing tired of this view of his work. “It’s funny, journalists always say to me, ‘You are a director of women,’ but nobody says, ‘You are a director of men.’”
It’s a fair point in the context of In the House, which, unusually for an Ozon film, focuses primarily on the male characters. And yet, it’s impossible to deny there are better roles for women in French cinema in general and his films in particular. “That’s why all the English actresses come to work in France,” he says, a note of glee creeping into his voice, aware that he’s provided Scott Thomas with another great French-language role. Ozon set something of a template for this back in 2000 by casting the similarly bilingual Charlotte Rampling in Under the Sand. “There are often very good parts for actresses over the age of 40 here. It’s more difficult in Britain, perhaps because you don’t make enough films or are too influenced by Hollywood.”
Ozon is at his most entertainingly snarky when pointing out such cultural differences. “In America and Britain,” he says, “cinema is a business, then an art; in France it’s an art, then a business. And in France, final cut is always with the director. In America it’s with the producer.” It’s why he refuses to work in Hollywood. “I’d work for a producer and in France, the producer works for the director.” It’s also why he reckons British filmmakers get on better in America than their French counterparts. “They’re more technicians than auteurs.” Ouch. “Maybe it’s bad,” he shrugs, “but in France it’s a tradition from the Nouvelle Vague that the director is the auteur.”
Blasting Hollywood, skewering Brits, unashamedly celebrating his own talents … it’s good to see there’s still a little of the enfant terrible left in François Ozon
• In The House is in cinemas from 29 March.