Regarde la mer And Other Films

France (1994-2006) Dir. François Ozon

One of France’s most prolific and boldest filmmakers of the past twenty years, François Ozon has amassed quite the catalogue of varied films covering a myriad of themes, which has seen him rise from obscure Enfant terrible to acclaimed mainstream heavy hitter who can rely upon many of France’s top actors to star in his works.

This set compiles seven of Ozon’s short films from before and after his feature length debut Sitcom in 1998. While the production values will vary from film to film, Ozon’s dark exploration into the human psyche, sexuality and family issues is prevalent and recognisable throughout.

We open with the eponymous film, the title translating to See The Sea, made in 1997.

A young British woman Sasha (Sasha Hails) lives in a house by the sea with her ten month-old daughter while her husband is away on a business trip. A female transient, Tatania (Marina de Van) appears one day asking to pitch her tent in the yard which is granted. The two women establish an odd rapport but Tatania’s behaviour and her interest in the baby start to get a little worrying.

Calling this a short film when it runs for 52 minutes is a bit of a stretch but it is a startling opener. A subtle psychological chiller awash with ambiguity, the relatively bare approach adds plenty to the eerie atmosphere all the way to the shocking denouement. You’ll certainly be afraid of your toothbrush after watching this film.

Up next is the oldest entry, 1994’s Action vérité (Truth Or Dare) a four minute affair in which four teens, two boys and two girls, play the titular game, with the “dares” being of a coy sexual nature. While the boys being forced to kiss is predictable, no-one could have expected the result of the girls’ turn.

Not much to say about this one except that the young actors are very natural in their performances, and the ending is deliberately shocking.

The third film is La petite mort (Little Death) from 1995, the first in this set of Ozon’s more esoteric and oblique works with a focus on homosexuality.

Paul (François Delaive) is a gay photographer who grew up believing his father (Michel Beaujard) thought he was ugly. His sister Camille (Camille Japy) takes Paul to see their dying father in hospital but Paul can’t face him. Instead he returns later and photographs his father as a sort of revenge but after his father dies, Paul learns the truth about their relationship.

Maybe a little too subtle for me with the photographic motif, but this is a well crafted little tale of familial tension with Camille trying to play peacemaker in a situation which seems irreparable due to lack of communication. The unique slant here is that Paul’s latest project is photographing men’s faces during orgasm, his idea of beauty aware that his sexuality was frowned upon by his family.

Film number four is Une robe d’été  (A Summer Dress) made in 1996.

Another tale based around a gay relationship, things aren’t going too well between Luc (Frédéric Mangenot) and Sébastien (Sébastien Charles) on their summer holiday, with Luc taking off for the beach alone. While skinny dipping he meets Spanish tourist Lucia (Lucia Sanchez) and they have sex but when they return, Luc’s clothes have been stolen. To save his embarrassment Lucia gives Luc her dress to wear on the ride home.

The most straightforward tale of the whole set, Ozon is at his most tongue in cheek in extolling the sexually provocative virtues of the summer dress.

Scènes de lit (Bedtime Stories) from 1998 is a mini-compendium of seven short stories about matters of the bedroom. A selection of quirky quick hits, they cover both gay and straight situations and range from the oblique to the darkly obscene. Opener Black Hole was the only one I understood and enjoyed even if it did have a gross denouement.

The award winning X2000 from 1998 is the penultimate outing which makes me the odd one out as I found this confusing and directionless.

A man (Bruno Slagmulder) wakes up on January 1st 2000 after a huge party to find people he doesn’t recognise in his flat and a load of ants under the fridge. Everyone is naked and the ants are getting out of control. I felt truly thick for not understanding this one. I presume it was meant to be a satire.

Finally from 2006 we have Un lever de rideau (A Curtain Raiser), based on the 1943 play Un incompris by Henry de Montherlant.

Bruno (Louis Garrel) is a fastidious young man who is upset at his girlfriend Rosetta (Vahina Giocante) for her inherent and constant tardiness throughout their eight month relationship. While waiting for Rosetta, Bruno confides in his friend Pierre (Mathieu Amalric) that he will ditch Rosetta when she arrives, claiming she has wasted 36 hours of his late in waiting. Pierre tries to talk Bruno into changing his mind.

The single apartment setting with a small cast gives away the film’s stage origins. This witty, wordy, almost poetic essay on the subject of pride and principles. Louis Garrel is suitably stiff and pretentious as Bruno while Vahina Giocante, who should be a bigger name, is her usual delightful self. Mathieu Amalric rounds off this trio, revelling in his role as the well meaning middle man Pierre.

For anyone who has only seen Ozon’s more recent, high production value mainstream features films this collection of his early shorts will come as a bit of a shock. Dark, unflinching and fiercely provocative Ozon’s maverick reputation is well justified here although his nascent sense of psychological manipulation and tongue-in-cheek gallows humour is also palpably present.

Bookended by two very good outings that are worth the price of admission alone, Regarde la mer And Other Films is an often oblique but fascinating document reflecting the varied early output from a modern auteur.