France (2009) Dir. François Ozon
If there was ever a caveat to being a director who swaps genres with relative ease and frequency it is that the audience finds themselves either too trusting that they’ll deliver something remarkably different or fearful that they will deliver something that is TOO different. France’s François Ozon is certainly a director who often fits in this particular class.
Ricky is a film that flips itself on its axis midway through its 85 minute run in a way you wouldn’t believe yet somehow this feels typical of Ozon all the same. It begins simply and innocently enough with the rather average Katie (Alexandra Lamy) and her 7-year-old daughter Lisa (Mélusine Mayance) living a quiet humble life in their council flat.
One day at work Katie catches the eye of new Spanish arrival Paco (Sergi Lopez) and they begin a relationship, contrary to Lisa’s liking, with Katie quickly falling pregnant. A son is born, Ricky (Arthur Peyret) but when Katie notices red marks on his back, she is quick to accuse Paco of mistreating their son and he leaves. Not long after these marks evolve in something quite unexpected.
Based on an short story by Rose Tremain (although this fact is unmentioned in the film’s credits) Ozon whips the carpet from under our feet by presenting us with a standard low key twenty plus minute kitchen sink drama before switching direction. Up until this point, we are drawn in by some familiar plot points, such as the working class single mother, the foreign lover and the inevitable relationship adjustments.
These effectively remain in place for the rest of the film with Paco finding it hard to live with a screaming baby, Katie becoming tired and restless at Paco’s selfishness and young Lisa trying to protect her baby brother. However the dynamic changes drastically due to a unique development and whilst I have been cagey up until now, it really needs to be revealed in order to discuss the change in direction.
As it transpires, the marks on Ricky’s back become lumps and the skin eventually breaks to reveal…wings! Fully functioning wings. They begin like sinewy plucked chicken wings before growing in size and sprouting feathers and eventually baby Ricky tentatively takes flight.
So now we’ve entered the fantasy part of the script and even with Ozon’s inherent French cynicism, these begets much levity and silliness when Ricky decides to make his public debut in a crowded supermarket, attracted by the storewide ceiling lights (riffing on the Moth origins of the story). Ricky then becomes a public sensation which also brings Paco back to reconnect with Katie, Lisa and his son.
Again no real surprises with these developments but the story moves way too fast and not enough questions are asked, leaving us with the only real question of “What is Ozon trying to say?” Katie doesn’t take Ricky to the hospital when the marks first appear and doesn’t even give Paco the chance to defend himself. When the wings finally sprout, Katie simply accepts it and carries on as normal.
It befalls to the wise beyond her years Lisa to express concern about her little brother’s avian protrusions and question the normalcy of such a phenomenon. All the while approaching the problem with childlike naivety, at one point almost taking a pair of scissors to Ricky’s wings when things start to spiral out of control. Despite this Lisa is the real leveller in the whole story.
Religious iconography rears its head late in the third act when Ricky flies off and a distraught Katie is about to make a drastic decision. The wings, of course, lend themselves to portraying Ricky as an angel which Ozon refuses to make explicit but really doesn’t have to. With a central concept unexplained and unexplored medically, suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part is required in huge doses.
We have to wait until the ambiguous ending to fully divine what the meaning of the story was and this will assuredly lead to a number of interpretations. For this writer, the hopeful and forward-looking ending suggests Ricky was a trial for the three principles, akin to having a handicapped child, to ascertain a conclusive compatibility between them.
Presumably a mix of CGI and possibly some wire work, it is a challenge not to enjoy the mirthful expression and unbridled glee of the airborne newborn defying both nature and gravity whilst avoiding capture from his family. There is slight discomfort in seeing the little chap with the unformed prosthetic stubs on his back but Ozon assures us there was no harm to him.
Even with his experience and deft hand at genre hopping Ozon is quite able to make the transition from dour melodrama to fanciful allegory as smooth as it could have been, but thankfully it isn’t as jarring as it could be. Aside from the marvel of a flying baby, the aesthetic seldom rises beyond the humdrum greyness of the working class environment of the small flat and busy workplace.
The cast are all uniformly good in their roles which is a plus. Despite the flaws Katie’s character Alexandra Lamy makes for a convincing troubled mother, balanced by Sergi Lopez’s decent but rough around the edges Paco. Baby Arthur Peyret may be cute and exceptionally well behaved but the real show stealer is Mélusine Mayance, her Lisa being every bit the precocious yet likeable child anchor a whimsical family drama needs.
If the film was a little longer and chose to explore the scientific side of Ricky’s unusual appendages in that time, a certain level of credibility would help appease any likely dissenting opinion of this film. As it stands, Ricky is neither Ozon’s best nor worst film feeling under developed for such a bold idea.
Subversively intriguing, delightfully maverick and suitably engaging while it lasts, yet sadly falls short of the impact it could and should have had.