Water Drops On Burning Rocks (Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes)

France (2000) Dir. François Ozon

This is a collaboration of sorts between two arthouse heavyweights which would have blown a few minds had it occurred when one of them was still alive. French enfant terrible François Ozon adapts a stage play by German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, entitled Tropfen auf heisse Steine, which was never performed in his lifetime.

Ozon sticks to the stage play format by breaking his film into four acts and limiting the location to just one apartment and mostly just two rooms. There are just four characters in the whole story, the two main focal points being fifty year-old Leopold (Bernard Giraudeau) and 20 year-old Franz (Malik Zidi). The first act opens with the pair arriving at Leo’s apartment having literally just met a little while earlier.

Franz isn’t quite sure why he went back with Leo since he was supposed to be meeting his girlfriend Anna, whom he plans to marry, yet he lets Leo seduce him and by the second act, they have been living together for six months, with Franz now essentially Leo’s housewife-cum-slave. Cracks begin to appear when Leo spends too much time away on business and Franz becomes restless.

Act three sees Franz’s vivacious girlfriend Anna (Ludivine Sagnier) shows up whilst Leo is away and they rekindle their relationship with two straight days of love making which is enough to convince Franz to leave Leo. The final act introduces us to Vera (Anna Thomson) Leo’s former lover who, it transpires, used to be an old army buddy before undergoing a sex change for him.

Not your usual love triangle/quadrangle but if you’ve seen any of Fassbinder’s or Ozon’s you’d know they don’t always follow convention, especially at this stage of Ozon’s film career. Written when Fassbinder was just 19, it is remarkable just how astute his observations on the fleeting aspect of love is, the title being a mature poetic simile referring to how quickly affections can fizzle out and fade away.

Politically this is a bold piece of work since it was written in 1964 and Germany was still four years away from decriminalising homosexuality which may explain why this play never made it to production at the time. Ozon circumvents this by setting it in the 1970’s to give him some room for manoeuvre in terms of the social timeline but nothing is lost from this.

Ozon also keeps many of the original German facets of Fassbinder’s work in his adaption, starting with the male characters having German names and money discussed in terms of marks and not francs. It is not disclosed but the location may also be in Germany although the dialogue is in French, save for a poem Franz recites which is in German.

The story is not really about being gay it is about love and how it can strike anyone under any circumstances, even for a moment. Franz admits to not being gay or curious by does reveal a dream where he is seen to by a man a trench coat; having seduced Fran, Leo brings the dram to life for him. This becomes a motif for the next two acts, with Franz turning to the tables on Leo and then performing the same scene with Anna.

Sex becomes the uniting factor here, not unsurprisingly, in a surreal sort of “paying it forward” way via Leo showing Franz a few tricks or too which practices on Leo then again on Anna, with whom he previously admitted to not enjoying intimacy. Now Anna thinks Franz is the complete man she wanted, Leo points out Franz wouldn’t be such a stud if he hadn’t shown him the way.

Leo’s is a divisive character, his vanity and protean moods make him unlikeable and the cause of the fights with Franz yet he has a confidence and innate ability to influence anyone male or female. He doesn’t explicitly identify as gay but did spend seven years with a woman (Vera) before becoming bored, the sex change being her way to win Leo back after their initial male romance ended.

Because the film takes on a surreal bent we accept Leo’s uncanny control over others, even if he cares little for their feelings. This also makes the humour difficult to divine even some situations often warrant the odd snigger. Aside from the recurring trench coat gag, the only moment worth a hoot is the inexplicable dance routine that is pure Ozon, something he would reuse in 8 Women a couple of years later.

Fassbinder’s writing is quite dense and verbose which won’t appeal to everyone and left this writer a little cold and removed from the story and characters. Ozon doesn’t do anything too adventurous to make this a visual treat, only a couple of moments really stand out: a mirror shot with Franz and Anna and the tragic closing scene.

If the story proves a little hard for some, at least the game cast are on Ozon’s wavelength. Bernard Giraudeau’s Leo is every bit as charismatic and charmless as required yet keeping his appeal a mystery to the viewer, offset by Malik Zidi’s tetchy and beguiling performance as Franz, a young man who knows his mind but not as much as he thinks until it is challenged.

Things pick up when Anna arrives and not just because Ludivine Sagnier is naked or in her underwear most of the time. She brings a vitality and much missing warmth to the hitherto dour proceedings, while Anna Thomson provides mature glamour and the true pathos concerning Leo’s control. Yet, for a film boldly breaking down preconceptions about homosexuality, the women are reduced to servile eye candy stereotypes – bit of a misstep there.

Once again I find myself on the outside of the popular consensus of love and praise Water Drops On Burning Rocks has received. I appreciate what Ozon and Fassbinder were trying to do with this but I couldn’t connect with the abstruse manner of the presentation.