François Ozon has been producing highly transgressive and idiosyncratic films back-to-back, roughly once a year since the late 1990s. His eclectic catalogue varies from comical and satirical works like Sitcom (1998) and 8 Women (2002), to dark yet spiritedly mischievous films like In the House (2012) and the mysterious and beguiling Young & Beautiful (2013). Nevertheless, his films are consistently characterized by a sharp, acerbic humour and an unmitigated portrayal of perverted sexuality and brutal violence that has positioned him as one of the leading figures of the New French Extremity movement, placing Ozon on giddy directorial heights with the likes of Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat and Bruno Dumont.
Ozon began his directorial career with numerous short films, including A Summer Dress (1996) and Bed Scenes (1998) which demonstrated his nascent sardonic style which dismissed accepted norms of human sexuality and behavior. Family Portrait (1988), a short thriller film based on his own family, depicts his brother, Guillaume, poisoning his mother, stabbing his sister and chocking his father at a dinner table, before reuniting the three of them on the living room couch to take a ‘lifeless’ family portrait. His whimsical humour in Sitcom, an absurdist satire following the decline of a respected suburban family into sadomasochism and incest, presents a topsy-turvy, convoluted parody of the traditional family values of American sitcoms, from which the film mockingly derives its title.
Following Ozon’s breakthrough work 8 Women, a murder-mystery musical about eight women vying to discover the truth about the death of a man – featuring a star-studded cast of French cinematic icons including Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Béart – was his equally acclaimed erotic thriller Swimming Pool (2003), a work Ozon considers to be especially personal due to its meta-narrative that gives insight into the demanding process of writing a novel or a screenplay. In accordance with Ozon’s proclivity for the sexually clandestine and taboo, the film follows a British mystery author whose sojourn in her publisher’s summer house in the south of France is disrupted by the arrival of the publisher’s supposed daughter, triggering a volatile emotional dynamic between the characters consisting of sexual trysts, voyeurism and death.
In his later films, Ozon’s exploration of sexuality in relation to identity shifts its focus to female sexual identity and desire, fittingly epitomized by The Refuge (2009), which made its world debut at the Toronto International Film Festival and garnered Ozon the Special Prize of the Jury at San Sebastián International Film Festival. Through the melancholy story of a young couple, Mousse and Louis, whose drug-addled lifestyles culminate in a heroin overdose which kills Louis, Ozon explores female sexual identity in relation to pregnancy, a corporal metamorphosis that Ozon portrays with eroticized sexuality, as Mousse discovers herself to be a pregnant widow and escapes Paris. Additionally, Ozon sought to erase what he believed to be false notions of maternal instinct and motherhood in society, both of which he posits to be portrayed in an intensely idealized manner. Through the film, Ozon presents it as something much more complex – for Mouse her pregnancy does not represent a process of procreation, but a tool for mourning and to process Louis’ death.
Similarly, his cult-hit Young & Beautiful, which was nominated for the Palm d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, deals with female maturation and burgeoning sexuality through a teenage prostitute, Isabelle (Marine Vacth), who struggles to deal with the transformation of her own body and her transition into womanhood. Ozon determinedly deviates from the equally idealized portrayal of adolescence in cinema, instead honestly conveying the pains of these physiological changes in a manner totally devoid of nostalgia. The protagonist’s choice of occupation is portrayed as an assault on her body in order to eradicate her lingering sense of numbness and to feel something in acts of sexuality not yet connected to emotion.
Ozon’s latest film, The New Girlfriend (2014) which made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, features his trademark sexual perversity, somber menace and psychological cartwheeling in a clever, triangular thriller about a woman (Anais Demoustier) who discovers that the widow (Romain Duris) of her recently deceased close friend (Isild Le Besco) harbors a clandestine penchant for cross-dressing. The film sensitively and unwaveringly focuses on the human flesh – both dead and alive – in an unnerving, voyeuristic manner, from the opening sequence which features perversely beautiful shots of the deceased Laura immaculately attired in her coffin, to an exquisitely detailed focus on cross-dressing David’s effeminate gestures, slim frame and soft features.
Ozon is daring and unapologetic in his highly visceral and intricately psychological exploration of themes like homosexuality, transvestitism and morbid issues like necrophilia, which he presents in a knowingly ambiguous manner that makes it difficulty for one to adhere to any specific interpretation. This fittingly reflects Ozon’s perception on the complexity of sexual identity, the fluctuating nature of desire and the pivotal role these two notions play in society, while simultaneously subverting the pervasive treatment of these issues as taboo subjects.