In the Paul Bowles short story ”A Distant Episode,“ a professor of linguistics is lured to a terrible fate by the sound of flute music. A perverse curiosity leads him forward, down an abysmal path into a deep gorge at the edge of the Sahara. This wish to have one‘s afterlife now — why wait for death? — also drives the protagonists in the films of Francois Ozon, the prodigious young French director whose works to date are being showcased by the Nuart for two weeks.
In See the Sea (1997), a young mother courts disaster for herself and her baby by allowing a sullen female stranger to have the run of their seaside cottage. In Criminal Lovers (1999), a demonic high school beauty (Natacha Regnier, of The Dreamlife of Angels) coaxes a sexually confused sweetheart into attacking her other lover, an Arab boy to whom they are both madly attracted. At its most physical level, this murder is the only means of expressing the totality of her rapture, beautifully established in a prolonged closeup of Regnier as she cowers in a steamy doorway, watching the Arab boy shower. (Either kill him or be enslaved, one can imagine her thinking.) On a more spiritual plane, her inducement of the far more sweet-spirited boy (Jeremie Renier) to do her dirty work seems born of her identification with a Rimbaud poem she recites in class: one pleading with heaven ”to be cast into a lifelong void by the laws of man.“ (That Rimbaud was a teenager who immolated his own life and career is no coincidence: Ozon chooses his characters’ intoxicants with care.) What follows — a nightmarish detour through a fairy-tale forest, in which the two teens fall prey to an ogreish recluse who locks them in his root cellar — reveals Ozon to be a master of white-knuckle suspense.
Yet if fate is a sadist, as he seems to conceive it, is Ozon one too? A trusted friend recoiled from Criminal Lovers, despising its ”mean spirit.“ The only defense I could offer is that Ozon is too precise in his masteries of structure and tone to be inflicting deliberate cruelty on us purely for his own pleasure. Much as the tensions he deals in can be so menacing they momentarily blind you to anything else, a sense of humanity and heart do operate, however implicitly. Owing to the marvelously well-cast Miki Manojlovic, the hideous forest-man who imprisons the teen killers is, if you can bear to look into his eyes, a sincerely angelic avenger.
A more eloquent defense is made by Ozon‘s newest film, Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000), adapted from a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Here the inquiry into sex and tyranny is made blazingly verbal. The connection to Fassbinder’s work is also readily apparent. (One can easily imagine Dirk Bogarde as the middle-aged seducer at the film‘s center, Brad Davis as his young beloved and Hanna Schygulla as either of the women.) Yet layers of deadpan humor are so dazzlingly brought to the central role by Bernard Giraudeau (the priest in Ridicule) that he palpably moves the film from Fassbinder’s side of the aisle to Ozon‘s. The coldhearted allure of this man’s sadism is allowed to be absolute in terms of its mesmerizing effect on those around him, while at the same time his coldness and its power are critiqued (however pessimistically) by the drama‘s outcome. Wit fused with pessimism is a trait Ozon shares with Fassbinder — ”It is only when we realize that everything is pointless,“ Fassbinder once said, ”that we can act fearlessly.“ One can reject such views, but one cannot deny that they are earned. The artistic rigor required for Ozon’s films to be so unforgettably dark argues their integrity; that Ozon has successfully honored Fassbinder while making the work his own is proof that, after this amazingly assured apprenticeship, a major career is begun.