AFM 2012: Francois Ozon Talks About His Craft Q&A

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The playful French auteur talks about the “game of cinema,” sleeping through Hitchcock’s "Rear Window" and why he considers his audience monsters.

Francois Ozon occupies a unique position in European and world cinema. Less an enfant terrible than an impish rascal, he is a master of defying audience expectations and playing with genres, whether it’s the musical-cum-murder-mystery of 8 Woman (2002), the thriller-meets-sex-comedy of Swimming Pool (2003) or the social drama combined with Disney-esque fantasy of Ricky (2009).

In his new film, In the House, Ozon again proves himself a master manipulator, adapting a play by Juan Mayorga about a problematic relationship between a literature professor and his ambitious, if morally suspect, student. The result is somewhere between psychological thriller, social commentary and a high-minded intellectual meta fiction, which won top honors at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Ozon spoke with The Hollywood Reporter International Editor Scott Roxborough about the games he plays with his audience, how reality TV is changing our world and about sleeping through Rear Window.

THR: What was it about Juan Mayorga’s play that inspired you?
"I think the first thing that inspired me and that I liked in the play was the relationship between the teacher and the student. I belonged to a family of teachers. I remember seeing my parents correcting papers over the weekend and all the problems with the students, with their bosses. I know this milieu. So it was the first thing that struck me. And afterward, what I really liked is that I thought that with this story I could talk about the process of writing, of creating, in a very playful way. I could make an entertaining film that could also speak in some depth about my process of working.

THR: Can you describe that process? For example, how did you adapt this play for the screen?
Ozon: It took me a long time to know how to adapt it. When you adapt a play, or a book, I think you have to betray the author. You have to take what you like and do your own business on it. So I took what I liked from the play to tell my own story.

THR: A big theme of the movie is the relationship between the author and his audience. How do you view your audience?
Ozon: Monsters! All of them! But I’m part of that audience too. I am a cinephile; I love to watch movies. But I know movies are about manipulation. It’s a deal between the audience and the director. When you go to a film of a director you like, you accept his world, his way of telling the story. That’s the deal. The experience of cinema is very strange. We are in the dark, watching fantasies flicker past on the screen. I wanted to convey something about that — about the relationship between the audience and the writer, the artiste. For me it’s a game. You have to play with the audience’s expectations. To give them what they want, or not. To play with the genre of cinema. You know, you can give the feeling it will be a thriller and then actually it is a melodrama. It will be a comedy or maybe not so much. You have to create space for the game because to me cinema is a game. It’s fun, it’s entertainment, you have to deal with all these things.

THR: Is that why you always work within the framework of a specific genre, even if you then play with that genre?
Ozon: Yes. I try to put the spectator in the art of the creation. When you are writing something, you don’t know where you are going, where it will end. You try different things, going one way, then the other. I wanted to put the audience in the middle of this process, so they could make their own film too. It’s funny; I did a screening in France and people told me afterward, “I thought the teacher would kill his wife or the wife would have sex with the pupil” — all sorts of different movies! But actually, my subject isn’t so much what will happen but more how it will happen, how you portray the facts. In the end, the film is about the relationship between the teacher and the student.

THR: One thing you do, deliberately, in this film is tell the audience, “This is a story we are making up.” It’s a risky move.
Ozon: That was the challenge of the film; it is a meta film, as we say — a film about making films. I wanted to do that but play with it in a very light way. The original play was very intellectual, very theoretical. I tried to make it funny and light without losing the depth. To play on several levels. For me, a good film needs to have different levels and can be read several ways.

THR: The student’s stories about his family that his professor obsesses over have the air of a reality TV show. Was that deliberate?
Ozon: Yes, of course. I think “reality” is the big obsession in film and particularly TV right now. Everyone is watching these reality TV shows where you know everything about the people. There are no more secrets, there is no more mystery, and I wanted to play with that. I think the fascination of the couple with the pupil’s family is exactly that. They pretend to be intellectual, but actually they want to know all the details of what’s happening in the bedroom of this middle-class family. It’s the same with our fascination with reality TV. Everyone says it’s cheap, but everyone is watching. We can be fascinated by the banality, people’s very ordinary life. It is something very modern, very much of today. But I’m not judging. This is part of the society of today. You have to deal with it. I think there is a kind of ambiguity of the artist. They want to be famous, so they have to give up some of their privacy. It isn’t good, it isn’t bad. It’s more complex than that.

THR: Watching the movie, I was reminded very much of Hitchcock, particularly Rear Window.
Ozon: You aren’t the first person to mention that, but I must admit, I slept through Rear Window. The only time I saw the film, I hadn’t slept the night before, and I dozed off. So I remember a few extracts, but I have never seen the entire film. Maybe I dreamt my version of Rear Window while I was sleeping, and this is the film!

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