Ever since making his feature debut with the darkly comical Sitcom, French writer/director François Ozon has been making the world feeling horny and shocked with his films, often at the same time. With a body of work that also includes Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Under the Sand, In the House and the glorious one-two punch of 8 Women and Swimming Pool, you’d think the prolific provocateur might soon be running out of tricks.
Think again. His latest erotic thriller, L’amant double, which premiered in competition at Cannes this year, proved to be the film scandaleux of the festival. Starring Marine Vacth as Chloé, a young woman who one day discovers her psychiatrist partner Paul (Jérémie Renier) might have an evil twin brother and gradually loses herself in a web of deceit and kinks, it’s the kind of dangerously sexy farce at which Ozon excels.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with the ever-exciting auteur at the 2017 Hamburg Film Festival to talk about his latest work, the state of queer cinema, and his experiences at film festivals from Cannes to Berlin.
The Film Stage: Identity is a recurring theme in your films, from Swimming Pool, The New Girlfriend to Frantz. What does Joyce Carol Oates’ story, on which L’amant double is based, say about identity that intrigued you?
François Ozon: I like to follow a character who changes during the course of a film. I like to start a film with a character in a bad situation who tries to be in a different place by the end. Which is the case of Chloé, who finds herself on a journey in this story. At the beginning she doesn’t know what she’s got inside of her or what’s wrong with her. At the end she realizes that and her true self becomes clear.
I saw the film in Cannes and the experience was one of my festival highlights because, in contrast to watching most other competition films, it was so much fun. Was it also more fun to make a movie like this than say, other more “serious” films?
Yes, the filmmaking experience was very playful – definitely more so than Frantz, which was a more classical movie where the mise-en-scène happened behind the movie. In the case of L’Amant double, I felt with this material it would be a good opportunity for me to play with many effects of mise-en-scène I’d never tried before. To play with horror, comedy and this mix of different genres. So yes, it was a playful experience, we had a lot of fun making the film.
Was it a quick shoot?
We shot for about eight weeks, which is actually not that different from Frantz, which took about nine weeks. The shooting of my films is usually quite short.
Apropos Cannes, have you heard that Thierry Frémaux is thinking of reforming the screening schedules in Cannes so that the press screenings would coincide with the gala premieres?
I didn’t know that.
The main reason he offered is that bad press reactions often ruin the atmosphere at the premieres.
That’s a good idea. I think that also has to do with the internet, Twitter, Facebook and the fact that very often, journalists tweet about a film right after watching it. So that while the credits are still rolling, you already know what important critics or some stupid person thinks about a film. It can be dangerous for the fate of that film. It’s like les jeux Romains [thumb up/down motioned by the Roman emperor]. Of course everyone is allowed so say if they enjoyed a movie or not, but if the critics don’t take the time to consider their words, they are no longer critics, they’re just regular audience members. So I think this is a good idea.
I also know Xavier Dolan was totally destroyed by the early press screening reactions. A film is the result of a lot of time involving many people, and in one minute all of it could be destroyed. And you know the reactions from Cannes are very different from those of a real audience. Sometimes you have the impression a film in Cannes is a masterpiece, but when you see it later in a cinema, you go “Heh?” It’s normal because at a festival you see so many films you don’t always make the right judgment call. Just like everybody else, critics can make mistakes too.
Generally speaking, what’s your relationship to criticism? Do you read reviews?
Yes, I’m very interested in what critics have to say. You know I make films for people to see and not only for myself. But I think I have a lucid attitude about these things. I know the work I’ve done, I know the mistakes I’ve made, so I’m interested to read carefully considered opinions. And I’ve known for a long time that my work is often controversial, that some people will like and other will hate my films, I’m used to having this kind of polarized reaction. For me that’s a good thing, because it means my work doesn’t leave the audience indifferent.
So you won’t be destroyed by negative tweets I guess.
No, I’m quite philosophical this way. I know the real critic is time. So we’ll see in twenty years whether something I’ve done is good or not. It happens so often that movies considered to be bad turned out to be masterpieces. That’s why it’s important to take time to think about a film.
How do you make a film as sexy as L’amant double?
I need to create desire. It’s about creating desire between the actors and about what to show or not to show the viewers. This is what I have to play with as director.
Have you seen Fifty Shades of Grey?
No, but I should have! Some American friends said to me, “You have to see it. Your film is a trash version of Fifty Shades.” So I have to watch it.
You first worked with Jérémie Renier on Criminal Lovers in 1999. What’s it like to have a work relationship with an actor for almost 20 years?
For me it’s a great pleasure. When I met Jérémie for the first time, he was 16 years old. I had seen him in La promesse by the Dardenne brothers, which I consider to be a masterpiece. He was very young and we became friends. We made Criminal Lovers when he was still a teenager. Then we made Potiche when he was 28. And now he’s 35. So I said to him: “Let’s make a movie together every ten years.” It touches me to follow an actor as he grows up, to see him become an adult and now a father. For me it’s a beautiful story we share.
You have worked with many of the world’s best actresses: Deneuve, Huppert, Rampling, just to name a few. You’ve now worked with Marine Vacth twice. What is it about her as an actress that makes her special?
She has a mystery about her. The camera loves her. She has what the Americans call star quality. When we made our first film Young & Beautiful together, it was a film about the secret of a girl. You don’t really understand her character and can project many things onto her. With Marine she’s like this beautiful white page, on which you can project many fantasies and desires. I thought she was perfect for the part. The movie was almost like a documentary on her. In the case of L’amant double it was quite different, because it’s about the inner world of the character. I wanted to reveal a secret at the end so that you know what’s been inside her. So the work was quite different. She had to really compose the character. That’s why I decided to cut her hair, as if turning a page on Young & Beautiful and showing that this is a new Marine.
Are there any particular actresses you’d like to work with?
I love actresses. There are many actresses I’d like to work with but I’m still waiting for the right parts. First and foremost it has to be about the part, after that I try to find the best actress for that part.
These past years we’ve seen a tremendous supply of quality LGBTQ films from all over the world. As an icon of queer cinema, do you think it’s still necessary to keep this label of queer/LGBTQ cinema at all?
I think it’s always necessary to help films find an audience which might otherwise have a hard time doing that. I can’t say I’m for having this label “queer cinema” but I’m definitely not against it. For me, when I won the Teddy at the Berlinale for Water Drops on Burning Rocks, it was very helpful because I wasn’t well-known then and the fact that the film won the Teddy probably sold it to the queer audience.
Are there any new filmmakers from queer cinema that caught your attention in recent years?
Some weeks ago I saw BPM by Robin Campillo in Paris and I really enjoyed it. It was very strong because I actually lived through that time. I’ve gone to some of the meetings of ACT UP and can say this film really succeeded in bringing the spirit of this period to life. I also really loved his last film Eastern Boys. I think he’s one of the best and most interesting directors working in France today.
I read that your first foreign language was German and that, in your youth, you used to come regularly to Hamburg to visit your pan pal.
Yes, that’s true.
Has the German film culture informed or influenced your own filmmaking?
I think the discovery of Fassbinder was very important to me as a student of film. I saw all his films at a retrospective in the Latin District of Paris and I was amazed by such a strong body of work. The stories they told about his country, the German society after the Second World War — I found them to be so honest and powerful. And he was not afraid to mix genres. Even though always working with the same actors, he went in so many different directions with his films. In terms of role models, he’s definitely one of mine.
In 2012, you were part of the competition jury at the Berlinale. After seeing the competition films, I remember thinking to myself: François Ozon would probably like Christian Petzold’s Barbara and Miguel Gomes’ Tabu. Of course neither won the Golden Bear…
There was a big fight. Those were my two favorite movies. Actually I suffered a little because of this experience – I realized a jury is a democracy and I wanted to be a dictator! I can say today that I was the only one who supported Tabu. I told Miguel Gomes this because he was quite upset to have only won the Alfred Bauer Prize for Artistic Contribution. I told him that without me, he would have won nothing.
Of course. And for Barbara I also fought because I wanted to give it the Golden Bear. Well, for me it was between those two films. But that was not how the other members of the jury saw it. So what can you do? At the end of it I was sick – well, we were all a bit sick because Berlin’s so cold – but overall it was a very good experience. Usually I always refuse to be on a jury, but that year I was in the company of very interesting people who I admire. But we were not on the same page and sometimes you realize that people you admire don’t necessarily have good taste.
The Golden Bear eventually went to Caesar Must Die.
That was Mike Leigh’s favorite, who was of course the president of the jury. That’s why I said afterwards that next time, I would only be the president of a jury.
You do notice that, even in Cannes, filmmakers you greatly admire sometimes make… “curious” choices when they preside over the jury.
I think this year in Cannes the winner was not Almodóvar’s favorite, but some jury presidents succeed in imposing their choice. It’s a fight, you know. You think it’s pure pleasure to be on a festival jury. Actually, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of discussions and fights. I remember with Jake Gyllenhaal we were often of the same opinion about things. I was quite surprised because he’s a Hollywood actor but we would fight together, you know, against the others.
Speaking of Barbara, do you know Nina Hoss? I think it would be amazing if you work with her someday.
Yes, I know her. She invited me to see her in a play by Thomas Ostermeier in Paris. We see each other sometimes. She’s great.
You’ve adapted Fassbinder (Water Drops on Burning Rocks) and shot a half-German film (Frantz). What’s the experience like working with German material or with a German team?
Well, with Water Drops on Burning Rocks it was very much a French picture. We shot in France and the idea was to do a film like those Hollywood movies from the 40s and 50s where Americans pretended to be French, only with French actors pretending to be Germans. As for Frantz, it was a great experience to work with a German crew. I think the Germans were quite surprised to see how the French worked. In France, what counts is really the vision of the director and everybody works in one direction. I have the impression that’s not always the case in other countries.
You’ve also worked with some crew members multiple times over the course of your career, for example the great cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. I noticed you made your respective feature debut as director/DP on Sitcom.
Yes, that’s right. He’s a very good cinematographer. He’s shooting now with Claire Denis – in Germany, I think. We met in film school, became friends and made several films together. Hopefully more to come.
L’amant double screened at the 2017 Hamburg Film Festival and will be released by Cohen Media Group on Valentine’s Day 2018.