Double Lover

Chloé with Paul, or possibly Louis

Made in 2017 but with its heart firmly in 1947, François Ozon’s Double Lover (L’amant double in the original French) takes a pretty young woman, Chloé (Marine Vacth), and subjects her to a brutal gaslighting at the hands of a male psychiatrist. Two male psychiatrists, in fact, twin brothers (both played by Jérémie Renier) so alike that they can pass for each other. Except one is kind of nice and cuddly, the other is tough and sexy.

Maybe Rosemary’s Baby (another film with its heart in the late 1940s) was also in the mind of Ozon when he set about adapting Joyce Carol Oates’s Lives of the Twins, since gynaecology is at the heart of Double Lover, which opens with a shot of Chloé’s cervix right up the speculum of an examining doctor. There’s nothing wrong with you physically, the doctor opines, and so Chloé winds up in the hands, and eventually the arms, of hunky shrink Paul, only learning later on, after a bit of noirish subterfuge and pavement pounding, that he has a twin, the dark and brooding Louis, also a shrink.

From here things take a misogynistic and misanthropic turn (no one in this is particularly nice) as the film poses the age-old question – is Chloé losing her mind or are there really two shrinks who look the same but are in fact brothers? If she isn’t, then maybe her pregnancy isn’t a phantom, and if it isn’t who’s the father? Again – if she isn’t, then why do Chloé’s mother and the mother of one of Paul or possibly Louis’s ex girlfriends also look exactly the same?

As Chloé pings between the two brothers, Ozon tells a serpentine story that would be funny if it weren’t played with a straight face, and ladles on the gothic extravagance much as Philippe Rombi’s score works the thriller soundtrack angles – jangling, groaning, shrieking, shouting.

Vacth, a skinny former model playing a skinny former model who might just be in need of a decent meal, a good fuck, or a wee baby – misogynist taunts all – displays barely a shred of feminism 2.0 in a scaredy-cat performance that connects her up through Geneviève Bujold (in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers – again the twin shrinks) back to Ingrid Bergman in 1944’s Gaslight (or Diana Wynyard, if the original British Gaslight is more your touchstone).

Jacqueline Bisset and Marine Vacth
Jacqueline Bisset and Marine Vacth



Handsome Jérémie Renier’s big square head does double duty as Paul and Louis, the yin and yang shrinks, and it’s a carefully judged performance which, unusually in a film full of gargoyles, doesn’t go for absolute broke. When Louis at one point pretends to be Paul, he’s a plausible Paul, Renier just nudging us with a gesture at a given moment, so we realise a second before Chloé does just what’s going on.

Jacqueline Bisset again demonstrates her uncanny star power in a small double role as Chloé’s estranged mother, and the mother of a girl Paul or Louis might have raped and driven to a suicide attempt (depending on who you believe), dragging the entire film in her direction while she’s on the screen. The doubling doesn’t end there, and there are regular visual reminders – via mirrors, mostly – that what you see might be the opposite of what you get.

There’s lots of nudity, and sex that’s either warm and cuddly or rough and brutal, depending on who’s involved. There’s even a scene with a strap-on – no spoilers as to who’s wearing it.

Which is another way of saying that this film is more or less scaring away potential audiences from the get-go – feminists spoiling for a fight might not spot that Ozon clearly thinks this is all nonsense, prudes afraid of the odd nipple will also stay away, as will the army of Ozon’s arthouse fans who don’t do horror. Be warned, there’s a distinct shift to the gory late on, when things get much more overtly Cronenbergian.

However, for all the viscera and vulva on display, everyone in it behaves throughout as if they know they’re characters in a film not real flesh and blood humans, as if the formal experiment rather than the drama is the main thing on offer. As with the bulk of Ozon’s films, it makes for chilly watching.


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© Steve Morrissey 2022









Criminal Lovers

Luc and Alice take a shower

Criminal Lovers. Is that lovers who are criminals? Or people who love criminals? There’s no such ambiguity in the original French title of François Ozon’s 1999 shocker. Les amants criminels makes clear these are lovers who are criminals. No ambiguity at all, in a film shot through with it from start to finish.

In what looks like a French reworking of Natural Born Killers, but is in fact a reworking of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale, Ozon’s film opens with a pair of loved-up teenagers – the passive Luc (Jérémie Renier) and femme very fatale Alice (Natacha Régnier) – indulging in a bit of mild S&M. Sex, sex, sex seems to be the idea. She’s hot for him, he’s hot for her, though Luc, unlikely as it seems, is a virgin. Ozon cuts away to another place, where Saïd and Karim, two young Arab French guys, are discussing who they’re going to nail next, though their homo-erotic bantering suggests that the people they’d most like to nail is each other.

In short order (and without getting too spoilerish), someone is dead – at Luc’s hand but at Alice’s prompting – and this deadly but laughably dim duo are on the road, creating a mini crime wave en route, and heading to a forest to bury the body of the dead person.

Which is where they come in contact with a middle-aged man known only as “L’homme des bois” (Miki Manojlovic), the man of the woods, a semi-mythical tag for a semi-fairytale character, who captures the luckless pair, imprisons them in his cellar and starts eyeing up Luc as a possible erotic partner. Maybe Luc won’t be a virgin for too long. Maybe, in spite of his desperate protestations of undying love for Alice, he’s going to enjoy being violated more than he expects.

Ambiguity is rife in Criminal Lovers, but Ozon has something specific in his sights as well. Scene one: Luc and Alice indulge in erotic hi-jinks. Scene two: murder most bloody. Here’s sex, and here’s death, Ozon appears to be saying, his ugly juxtapositions stress-testing the usual creatives’ pairing of sex and death. Beyond the fact that one creates life and the other ends it, is there any valuable connection, or is the coupling glib?

Luc in bed with the man in the woods
Showtime for Luc and the “the man”



Fascinating though all this is, Criminal Lovers remains more a thought exercise than an engaging dramatic experience. Ozon keeps us slightly at a distance, not in the same way as Oliver Stone did in Natural Born Killers with his relentless aping of an advertising-driven consumer society, but by presenting everything as flat and matter of fact, right down to the one-note performances of Régnier as the sex-obsessed Alice and in particular Renier’s almost inert Luc. Ozon does not want us to like these characters, that’s clear, but we also don’t really get to know them, or the guy in the woods, or the French Arab guys, or in fact anyone at all.

The film debuted in 1999 and looked like something of an outlier at the time. Since then it’s been lumped together with other films of the era as part of the New French Extremity, a grungey rejection of many of the conventions of the talky bourgeois French drama in favour of more genre-driven fare. Ozon found himself in the company of auteurs like Gaspar Noé and Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Bruno Dumont, Pascal Laugiers, Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat and films like Martyrs, Switchblade Romance, Frontières, Trouble Every Day, In My Skin and Pola X. Body horror looms large in most of these, sex is usually something problematical and moments of unexpected outrageous violence often heave regularly into view. Organs and orgasms. As I write (2022), French film-maker Julia Ducournau seems the most obvious inheritor of the mantle, with films like Raw and Titane.

Which is another way of saying that there are moments in Criminal Lovers that are likely to make the more sensitive viewer queasy. Approach with fingers splayed over the eyes, or gripping the iron bedstead, as Luc does at one point. Ozon, a master of the tasteful, for all his protestations to the contrary, does not go all in, using suggestion where other directors might be overt. There’s a flashback moment where Alice handles a flick knife as if it were a penis… enough said.

Hansel and Gretel go into the woods, find a gingerbread house, are taken prisoner and finally break free, killing the witch as they do so. Criminal Lovers ticks most of the boxes, but not always in quite the way you’d expect and comes with its own critique of itself, a final, smouldering look by Luc into the camera. It’s hard to read, but “what the fuck was that all about?” might be getting close.


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© Steve Morrissey 2022









Summer of 85

David and Alex on a motorbike

 

Intense, sexy and brooding, Summer of 85 (Été 85 in the original French) is François Ozon’s latest look at human relationships of a particularly febrile sort, all set in a seaside town at a time when Ozon himself would have been a teenager.

After a languid and deliberately cinematic tracking shot from the water’s edge right up the beach and onto the promenade, Ozon then gives us a smell of what’s about to play out by introducing us to two friends discussing what they’re going to get up to later that day. Both are handsome lads, and seem to be either standing too close to each other, staring too intently at each other or simply giving off too much animal heat. They’re not gay lovers, just friends, but Ozon has primed us for what comes next.

Out in the sea on his own a bit later, one of the two, Alex (Félix Lefebvre), gets into trouble when he capsizes his boat and is later saved by David, a stranger who happens to be sailing by. David, handsome and athletic, with his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a rippling torso, takes Alex, shocked and shivering in his trunks, back to his house for a bit of R&R, where David’s mother helps Alex undress for a restorative hot bath, pausing to remark delightedly on the size of his cock… in a way that is both motherly and inappropriate at the same time.

Somehow pulling off this dextrous feat is Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the mother, a gossipy sort a world away from VBT’s more usual restrained bourgeois roles. She comes into her own later as the intensity of these early scenes give way to tragedy and the over-sharing matron transforms into something much more vengeful.

 

Alex and David prepare to go out
Beginning of the end: Alex and David

 

Something goes wrong, yes, but we’re not quite sure what it is till near the end of the film, though flash-forwards give us the basics – a tragedy of some sort, David is involved and Alex is being held responsible.

In Ozon’s sensational, much imitated, never bettered 5X2 he teased out a love story in chapters by jumping backwards from the end to the beginning. Here the chronology is more traditional – he’s going forwards in time but he’s doing it similarly in leaps. We get Alex and David’s romance in soundbites, the salty meet-cute, the flirting, the consummation, then the moment when things start to sour, punctuated by a friendship that Alex strikes up with an English au pair (Philippine Velge) he meets on the beach (or, more to the point, who forces herself on him), a friendship that proves catalytic and fateful.

Having done love in chunks, Ozon then does the grief in chunks too, keeping from us the what and the who for as long as he can and giving the film a powerful dramatic tug.

In films like Swimming Pool and In the House and also, to an extent, Frantz, Ozon displayed a fascination for stories about obsessive, often destructive desire, and he does it again here, though it must be said that he seems more at ease with the love than the grief.

It’s also a portrait of a time, the mid-1980s, when a song like The Cure’s In Between Days, which features on the soundtrack, would have been heard everywhere. (Incidentally, Ozon was going to call the film Summer of 84 until The Cure’s Robert Smith pointed out that the song was released in 1985 – Ozon changed the film’s title).

Perhaps best of all is the way Ozon captures the feeling of impermanence in a seaside town in summer, where minds giddy on the smell of sunscreen embark on random relationships that lead into uncharted waters.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

In the House

Claude and Esther

If you’ve seen 5X2, you’ll already know that François Ozon makes immensely clever and highly entertaining films, and that there’s a point to the cleverness; he’s not just showing off. In the House, aka Dans La Maison, is Ozon to the bone, another very clever piece of work. This time, however, the point he’s making is far less immediately obvious.

5X2 was a love story played out backwards, the point being that, “forearmed” as we were with the knowledge that the relationship would crumble, we saw the couple in question’s first stirrings of love, courtship, marriage, honeymoon and so on through entirely different eyes. Here Ozon plays a similar trick, taking a Cuckoo in the Nest plot and wrapping it up in an examination of fiction and truth.

Fabrice Luchini plays Germain Germain, a jaded teacher of French who is wading through the marking of “what I did at the weekend” essays one night when he comes across something submitted by one of his pupils. It’s a startling story of how Claude, one of his teenage charges, courted fellow pupil Rapha, so he could gain access to the boy’s house, where he seems to have been leering after the kid’s mother Esther, (played by Emmanuelle Seigner). Unsettled, the teacher shows his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) the unusual and seemingly confessional essay. She is as intrigued as he, but also appalled. Next day the teacher upbraids the boy for his stalking, who instead of backing down hands him the next instalment of the story, which ends, like the first one, with “A suivre…” (to be continued).

Aagainst his better judgment, the teacher reads on, and becomes completely, becoming not just an avid follower of the boy’s increasingly lurid exploits (is he going to seduce the mother? the son? surely not the father?), not just his literary mentor, but also, bit by bit, an agent provocateur. Ozon symbolises this brilliantly, by having Luchini suddenly popping up inside the boy’s retelling of his story to offer pointers.

Claude and Germain
Claude and Germain?


Inside this vicious circle or feedback loop, on the one hand there’s a Damien tale of a monster inside a humdrum middle class family’s life. On the other there’s the teacher’s reactions to that story, and the effect his reactions have on the development of the boy’s story. And all the while the boy’s story is progressively taking over the teacher’s life. Fact and fiction become hopelessly intertwined, with the only seeming certainty being that, as is said several times, “the world needs stories”.

There is a student essay in here for someone with an interest in structuralism or deconstruction (both of which more or less take the view that nothing is certain or natural and that everything is made up – it’s all a big story).

For those of a more pragmatic, empirical nature, this is also a highly entertaining bit of farce, with Luchini perfectly cast – all hangdog one second, raised eyebrow the next – as the teacher in beyond the elbow, an invert of the Lolita figure of Humbert Humbert having rings run around him by an “innocent” kid. Ernst Umhauer plays the teenager, cleverer by far than his teacher, an inspired bit of casting – creepy, smooth skinned, attractive, with a hint of a smile that could be amusement or malice. Bisexual? Maybe. Unsettling is Ozon’s intention, I suspect, and Umhauer is certainly that.

Everyone else, including Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Seigner, is a footnote. Apart, that is, from the father of the dolt, also called Rapha, played as a man so charged up with manly testosterone by Denis Ménochet, as so “natural” and unmediated in his actions and reactions that he stands in complete contradiction to the fey “everything is fictional” posturing of everyone else. And that, surely, is the point of Ozon’s film – there is fiction, there is fact and if we lose the distinction, we’re lost. French philosophers of the post 1968 tradition take note.



In the House – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012