Francois Ozon explores ideas of teaching, imagination and voyeurism
French filmmaker provocateur Francois Ozon's latest work teeters between art and voyeurism, writes James Mottram
When Francois Ozon was invited by an actress friend to see her in a new play, he was less than keen. "I didn't want to go," he says. "I'm so always in demand - actors asking me to come [to their plays] and sometimes it's very boring." It's no surprise - he is one of France's most prolific, successful filmmakers, his work ranging from comedies ( 8 Women, Potiche) to tragedies ( Under the Sand, 5x2, Time to Leave).
Still, when he heard the title of Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga's work, he was intrigued. The story of a literature teacher who coaxes a pupil towards creative writing with life-changing results, the French translation - Le Garçon du Dernier Rang - literally means "The Boy in the Back Row". The son of a biology professor and a teacher, Ozon immediately related. "I was not a good student. I was very bad. I was really the boy in the back row."
Raised in Paris, the 45-year-old filmmaker claims he only "became a good student" when he began to study cinema. "At this moment, suddenly I became good. I was surprised at myself, because I had the feeling I would be the guy causing havoc in class."
At film school La Femis, he was taught by Eric Rohmer, the director of The Green Ray becoming a true inspiration on Ozon. "Suddenly, I had a feeling it was possible for me - I could find a way into cinema."
It was only years later, when Ozon began to find success with his first full-length feature film, 1998's Sitcom, that Rohmer realised just how he'd inspired the younger filmmaker. "He sent me a message because I said in the press that he was my teacher, and he was very touched by that," Ozon says. "That's what I wanted to say in this film. When you are a teacher, you don't realise it will be important for people. It's many years after you will realise that and sometimes it's too late."
After watching Mayorga's play, Ozon set out to adapt it into In the House, the 13th film of his career and one of his best. Fabrice Luchini stars as Germain, a teacher at a French secondary school who comes into contact with 16-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer). Encouraging his literary aspirations, Germain takes Claude's essays home to read to his art dealer wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). While titillated by the content, notably Claude's attraction to his best friend's mother, the story takes on a more ominous tone as the pupil insinuates his way first into his friend's house then his teacher's. Ozon, though, doesn't see the boy as cruel or vindictive.
"No, for me he's very naïve. He just tries to follow the lessons of his teacher," he says. So he's an innocent? Ozon waggles his fingers to place invisible inverted commas around the word. "Nobody's innocent. Even children."
Not the first play he's adapted - his Fassbinder-written Water Drops on Burning Rocks, 8 Women and Potiche all began life on the stage - In the House feels far more suited to the medium of cinema. After all it's a story of voyeurism - "the essence of cinema", as Ozon puts it. "All people who love cinema are voyeurs. It's not negative to me. You have to admit when you're a director, you have to deal with voyeurism, manipulation. It's part of the job. Hitchcock shows that when he did Rear Window, Vertigo … the films are clear about that."
If we're talking theories, Ozon is particularly keen on one critique by a French journalist. "He said, 'Francois Ozon is the young boy, and the house is French cinema, and he tried to destroy all of French cinema in the house'."
It's like 1998 all over again, when the playful, perverse Sitcom - the story of an upper-class French family, shocked when the son reveals he's gay - burst onto the scene. Then the auteur was compared to the rat that makes an appearance in the film. "Now, I'm a young boy. Next time I don't know what else I will be."
Nevertheless, Ozon is evidently against In the House being compared to his first film - made when he was 30. "Maybe this is deeper," he says. "I was much younger then. It was my first feature. I had no money to do it. This film, I'm much more mature than on Sitcom. I have nothing against it, but it's an old movie." And it's true. Ozon has found a way to meditate on art, creation, inspiration and influence, nipping between the light and the dark. "I had the impression I could make a film that was very personal but also universal," he says. Mission accomplished.
In the House opens on Thursday