PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 July, 2009, 12:00am

Starring: Alexandra Lamy, Sergi Lopez, Melusine Mayance, Arthur Peyret

Director: Francois Ozon

Category: IIB (French)

With his first few feature-length films in the late 1990s, Francois Ozon was seen as the key player among the so-called New French Extremity pack of filmmakers who satirised moral transgressions in modern middle-class life through sexually explicit films. The 41-year-old remains controversial, but today his subversion of genre films sets his work apart - his alternative takes on musicals (8 Women), thrillers (Swimming Pool), marital-breakdown drama (the reverse storytelling of 5x2) and period drama (Angel).

His experiments continue with Ricky, which comes with an opening scene that's more akin to the realist cinema of Belgium's Dardenne brothers. The film begins with a long scene in which middle-aged Katie (Alexandra Lamy) pleads for help from an off-camera social worker, imploring her to let her new baby (above) be taken into foster care. She's a factory worker, toiling day in, day out on a conveyor belt packing toxic chemicals. Her Spanish partner has deserted her and she's barely coping bringing up her older daughter.

True to form, Ozon wrong-foots everyone. Instead of a realist misery-fest, Ricky - based on Rose Tremain's short story Moth - is perhaps Ozon's most buoyant and irony-free film yet. After Katie's breakdown, there's a flashback to a few months earlier, when she meets Paco (Sergi Lopez), falls in love with him and conceives a child from one of their trysts.

Things begin to go awry when the pair's relationship deteriorates. Katie's daughter Lisa (Melusine Mayance) is reluctant to warm to the new man in the house and becomes increasingly agitated over her mother's shift of attention and affection to Ricky, her new baby brother. The breakdown seems to be complete when Katie accuses Paco of beating Ricky, the proof being bruises on Ricky's back. Shocked by Katie's claims, Paco leaves.

Rather than condemning Katie to the grim fate suggested by the opening scene, Ozon simply shifts his gears, turns Ricky away from its erstwhile social realist leanings and plunges headlong into fantasy. The baby's wounds eventually emerge as something much fluffier (literally, that is - the film's Chinese title is the twist-debunking Little Flying Baby, so no prizes for guessing), and Ricky's physical transformation provides the fast-dissolving family with redemption, as Katie, Lisa, Paco and the audience marvel at the baby's angelic conversion and its astonishing effect in healing old wounds and imparting new hope even amid the most depressing parts of northern France's industrial belt.

Ricky is driven by strong performances from its cast - Lamy, better known for comedy work in her home country, is especially effective in conveying Katie's anguish without resorting to melodramatic cliches. Young Melusine shows enough nuance to follow the footsteps of Ludivine Sagnier, who matured well under Ozon's tutelage and went on to greater things after Water Drops on Burning Rocks and Swimming Pool. The director himself also shows a deft touch in adapting to intimate human drama, too: the first half of the film, in which he depicts the family's gradual spin into despair, is raw and affecting.

Which leads us to what undermines Ricky: the baby boy's transformation might present much space for allegories, but Ozon seems forced to steer the film towards a benign conclusion. Tremain's story presented both Katie and Paco in a much harsher light - the latter, for instance, returns with the sole aim of cashing in his son's exceptional physique. But in the film everyone is ushered towards a comfortable closure. It's a missed opportunity, especially when Ozon has included sufficient hints to suggest that the whole Ricky affair might just be a figment of Lisa's imagination as she struggles to come to terms with Paco's intrusion into her family. Had Ozon put his once trademark mischief into the story, Ricky would be more riveting.

Ricky opens today