One of the most provocative and vibrant filmmakers to emerge during the 1990s, French director François Ozon has distinguished himself with dark, mordantly psychological films that draw their impact from Ozon's frank and often disturbing explorations of transgression and sexuality. Combining wry humor, sensitivity, and subversive insight with a talent for manipulation, Ozon has earned comparisons to Hitchcock and Chabrol, directors whose works have provided ample inspiration for the young director as he has staked out his own, impressive territory in the cinema.
Born in Paris in 1967, Ozon became interested in filmmaking at a young age. The son of bourgeois intellectuals, he was influenced by such Hollywood-based European directors as Hitchcock, Max Ophuls, and Jean Renoir, and also found great inspiration in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (one of Fassbinder's early plays would later inspire Ozon's Water Drops on Burning Rocks). After earning a master's degree in cinema, Ozon attended FEMIS, France's prestigious national film school, and began turning out large numbers of Super 8, video, and 16 mm films, some of which took their cues from the numerous home movies Ozon's father shot during his son's childhood. Many of these shorts were screened at various international film festivals or screened on French television, and in 1996 Ozon was awarded the Locarno Film Festival's Leopard de Demain for A Summer Dress, a winsome short about a young, gay man on holiday with his boyfriend who has a brief fling with a girl and, after losing his clothes, is forced to wear her dress. A Summer Dress would be released in the U.S. the following year alongside Ozon's first semi-feature-length film, See the Sea. A darkly sexual, elegantly menacing suspense drama about a young mother alone on a seaside holiday who opens her home and life to a sullen young backpacker, the film established its director as a master of composition and psychological manipulation, and announced him as a major new talent.
Ozon followed See the Sea with Sitcom, his first feature-length film, in 1998. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, is a black comedy about a seemingly perfect middle-class family that brims with sexual and psychological perversity. A number of critics pointed out that while it was entertaining, Sitcom also betrayed Ozon's roots as a director of shorts and, as such, ran out of steam midway through. More successful was Les Amants Criminels, which followed a year later. Another exercise in sexual brutality and psychological dysfunction, it centers on the experiences of two young murderers (Natacha Régnier and Jeremie Renier) who are imprisoned by a nefarious, carnally minded woodsman; Les Amants was described by one critic as "[an] extremely soft-core, gay, S&M fantas[y] based upon Hansel and Gretel." Earning comparisons to everything from Natural Born Killers to Bonnie and Clyde, the film strengthened Ozon's status as the enfant terrible of contemporary French cinema, although it also led some critics to note that this status didn't guarantee solid work.
The director next adapted an early, unproduced play by a then-19-year-old Rainer Werner Fassbinder for his next project, Water Drops on Burning Rocks. A portrait of the dysfunctional relationship between the young, naive Franz (Malik Zidi), his older, tyrannical lover Leopold (Bernard Girardeau), and their respective fiancée and ex-girlfriend, Water was a complex, claustrophobic, resolutely unsentimental love story that ended in tragedy. It enjoyed great popularity, earning a Teddy Award for Best Gay & Lesbian Film at the Berlin International Film Festival, and was enthusiastically embraced by a number of European critics. This enthusiasm was not shared by many American critics, who found the adaptation of Fassbinder's work less than satisfying; however, critics were almost unanimous in the opinion that despite the film's flaws, Ozon continued to reign as one of the most promising of France's new generation of filmmakers.
For his next feature the director known for his somewhat outrageous and sexually charged films cemented that status with a remarkably somber drama addressing the subjects of death, grieving and the ability to move on with one's life after losing a dear loved one. Starring Charlotte Rampling as a mournful widow whose husband simply disappears one day while the couple is on holiday, Under the Sand proved a haunting and affecting drama that indicated Ozon's versitility may stretch much further than some critics may have given him credit for. Nominated for Best Actress, Best Director and Best Film at the 2002 Cesar Awards, Under the Sand marked a newfound maturity that signaled great things to come from the director. Of course predictibility is a concept that seemingly doesn't exist in Ozon's celluliod universe, and for his next feature the director performed a cinematic about face with a campy musical mystery involving murder and an isolated house overflowing with suspect characters. Overflowing with an unprecedented cast of French film legends including Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Beart, Danielle Darrieux, Cathering Denuve, ISabelle Huppert, Virgine Ledoyen, Firmine Richard and Ludivine Sagnier, 8 Women proved an enjoyable take on the overexagerrated Hollywood musicals of yesteryear.
If stateside audiences had yet to discover Ozon, all of that would change with the release of Swimming Pool in 2003. Reuniting Ozon with Under the Sand star Rampling, the mysterious tale of a repressed older woman confronted by the carefree abandon of youth in a remote sitting may have indeed evoked memories of See the Sea, though Swimming Pool would opt to take the horrors of Ozon's earlier work in an entirely new and unexpected direction. While Swimming Pool may not have displayed the rich decadence of Criminal Lovers or the deeply moving drama of Under the Sand, the film ultimately treaded a comfortable middle ground between the two and offered a noteworthy introduction to his his work for the uninitiated.