First and foremost, the Democratic caucus in Washington State was held yesterday, and as the Precinct Committee Officer for my precinct, I was responsible for getting out the vote, which meant a lot of knocking on doors and telephone calls, an activity I pursued with a surprising (for me) degree of commitment, cutting heavily into my blogging time. Now that this round of hard Bush-beating work (did that come out right?) is over, I feel a luxurious sense of time for enjoyment. May I take a brief moment to congratulate myself for helping to inspire a fairly large number of voters from my precinct to attend the caucus, and the voters themselves for making our precinct a strong supporter of Howard Dean (the final count, with six delegates allotted to my precinct, was three Dean delegates, two Kerry delegates, and one Kucinich delegate)?
Secondly, this morning I had the ravishing experience of re-watching Claire Denis’s Beau Travail and beholding for the first time the excellent results of what strikes me as a truly noble cinematic undertaking: Francois Ozon’s filmed adaptation of a Fassbinder’s never-performed Water Drops on Burning Rocks.
-Denis’s film- it is, unfortunately, the only one of hers that I’ve seen- is based on Melville’s Billy Budd and set amongst French Legionnaires doing their duty and making their homes (in the literal, laundering, ironing, cooking sense), is a melancholy poem in sun ‘n sea for the constantly jeopardized (not to mention homoerotically compromised) position old-fashioned “masculinity” puts itself into.
There is a bizarre love triangle in the film, of which only Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) is aware; it exists between himself, his Commandant, Forestier, whose attention, approbation (and, one gets the very strong impression, physical love) he craves, and a newly arrived, perfect, new young soldier, Sentain (Gregoire Colin), who is a perfect and seems to be usurping Galoup’s place in the film’s all-male cell, which is dedicated to the destruction (and refuge from) individual personality or freedom. Galoup‘s jealousy destroys Sentain and himself; this destruction unfolds as the inevitable, inexorable result of a repression hard and beautiful on the surface.
Much male flesh is on display throughout, but Denis’s is hardly the usual, easy-titillation brand of homoeroticism indulged in by David Fincher or Herb Ritts. Her mis-en-scene frames the taut male bodies as beautifully as it does the mountains, sky, desert and sea they appear to be a part of; because they are visually astute and their unself-conscious beauty is seen through the eyes of one who could never admit he lingered over them, there is no question of their being merely gratuitous. Denis’s camera (with fantastic cinematography by Agnes Godard (who has alwo worked with Peter Greenaway and Wim Wenders) objectifies, but in the same ferociously intelligent, dialectical way Todd Haynes’s simultaneously fawned over and undermined the awesome placidity of upper-class suburban L.A. in Safe. There is no doubt that we’re seeing a parade of very fit, appealing half-naked soldiers, but this is only part of their objectification. We also see, via real-time, visually symmetrical drills, chores, and Legion-fostered bonding activities, the circumscription of these young mens’ situation, in which they’ve subjected themselves to every conceivable kind of objectification on a permanent basis; the characters (if not the filmmaker herself) shares view of objectification “Pauline Reage” proposed in The Story of O, the same one every S&M participant explicitly acts out; what is more agonizing for us humans, us “neurotic animals” as Norman O. Brown called us, than contemplation and self-reflection? What , then, could be more liberating than to eliminate consciousness and become an object?
The coda, which is both touching and hilarious, imagines our jealous, stifled hero in the heaven (or is it hell?) which he has probably always craved, consciously or not. This ending struck me as rather frivolous when I first saw the film upon its initial release in 1999; it now seems perfectly apt.
-It must have been daunting for the superb French director Francois Ozon to take on a script by none other than R.W. Fassbinder before he’d even come close to reaching the level of international attention and acclaim he’s subsequently received with Under the Sand, 8 Women, and Swimming Pool, but his amazing assuredness and ability to perfectly pastiche visual style is in full bloom in Water Drops on Burning Rocks, the script of which he adapted directly from an unstaged, unfilmed play Fassbinder wrote at the age of 19.
Ozon sets the film in the seventies, and every frame looks as if Fassbinder had composed the shot. Everything- the colors, the lighting, the opening credits- are as Fassbinder would clearly have had them. I interpret this fact less as a self-cancellation of authorship on Ozon’s part than as an immense success for him: His film is as great a posthumous tribute as Fassbinder could’ve hoped for for his work, and how could that not be the filmmaker’s ultimate goal when adapting the work of such a legend? Ozon’s film is a work as Fassbinderian as Tom Tykwer’s Heaven was Kieslowskian.
The script is at least partially autobiographical (making it of a piece with most of Fassbinder’s work). Franz, a lanky, innocent 19-year-old less sexually ambivalent then nihilistic and depressive, goes to bed out of boredom and/or curiosity with a cynical yet oddly vulnerable-appearing 50-year-old bourgeois in his nicely appointed apartment. Franz falls madly in love, a twist neither Franz nor Leopold expected, but which Leopold wastes no time in exploiting as he transforms Franz into his housewife. Their relationship degenerates, with Leopold’s demanding, petty crankiness parasitically feeding off of Franz’s increasing love and need for him, until the day Anna (Ozon regular Ludivine Sagnier), Franz’s ex-girlfriend whom he dumped for his Leopold infatuation, shows up to rescue him while Leopold’s out of town on business. When Leopold returns unexpectedly and begins to seduce Anna, an occurrence no less alarming to poor Franz than the arrival of Leopold’s M to F transsexual former partner/fiancee, things degenerate (or escalate, depending on whether or not you take Leopold’s point of view) to flippant absurdity mingled with extreme tragedy, which is nothing less than expected from a tragicomic bedroom farce by Fassbinder.
It wasn’t so long ago that I claimed, in a piece on Fassbinder I wrote for Just Out, that Francois Ozon, along with Todd Haynes, was the most interesting gay director currently working and a rightful heir to Fassbinder’s queer-cinema modernism. This was on the strength of 8 Women and Swimming Pool alone; this film proves that Ozon is as much the Fassbinder devotee that Haynes is, and though he hasn’t blown me away with a work as masterfully affecting as Safe, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if such a film did eventually emerge from Ozon’s brilliant, uniquely clever mind.
As a postscript, Ozon rivals Jean-Paul Belmondo (as he appeared in Breathless) in Gallic gorgeousness. It is entirely unfair for someone to be so gifted in their chosen art and so breathtakingly good-looking (see photo above).
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