SITCOM
Color, 1998, 79 mins. 55 secs.
Directed by François Ozon
Starring Évelyne Dandry, François Marthouret, Marina de Van, Adrien de Van, Stéphane Rideau
Altered Innocence (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Studiocanal (Blu-ray) (France RB HD), Film Office (DVD) (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), New Yorker Video (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)

CRIMINAL LOVERS
Color, 1999, 96 mins. 6 secs.
Directed by François Ozon
Starring Natacha Régnier, Jérémie Rénier, Miki Manojlović, Salim Kechiouche
Altered Innocence (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Studiocanal (Blu-ray) (France RB HD), Film Office (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Strand Releasing (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1)

WATER DROPS ON BURNING ROCKS
Color, 2000, 80 mins.
Directed by François Ozon
Starring Bernard Giraudau, Malik Zidi, Ludivine Sagnier, Anna Thomson
Altered Innocence (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Film Office (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Zeitgeist (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)


At the end of the 20th century, SitcomFrench cinema got a shot in the arm from many filmmakers with few making more of a Sitcomsplash than François Ozon. Wildly unpredictable from one film to the next, he cut his teeth on a string of attention-getting short films whose unabashed sexuality of all stripes made him the talk of festivals. After moving on to more ambitious things with the beautifully crafted and quite shocking See the Sea, basically a very long short film that showed he was ready to graduate to feature films, he dove in with great enthusiasm and has kept working at a feverish pace with at least one new film almost every year. Made in quick succession, his first three films finally got their first worthwhile home video releases in 2024 as a two-disc Blu-ray set from Altered Innocence entitled Ozon's Transgressive Triple.

Ozon's official feature debut, Sitcom, opens with the deliberate artifice of a curtain being drawn away to reveal a suburban home where we expect to meet the traditional family of mother, father, son, and daughter. That's what we seem to get, but that opening also features off-screen characters singing "Happy Birthday" before apparently being shot to death. However, nothing is predictable here as we jump back to find out how a Sitcomfather (Marthouret, also in Ozon's By the Grace of God) started a chain reaction in the household by bringing home a pet white rat for the son, Nicolas (Adrien de Van). Less Sitcomenthused about the new arrival are the mother (Dandry) and the sardonic daughter, Sophie (real-life sister Marina de Van, director and star of the disturbing In My Skin), who is mostly focused on her sweet-natured boyfriend, David (Rideau). That night during a break at dinner, the rat nips Nicolas and immediately inspires the boy to announce his homosexuality at the family. David starts bringing an increasingly odd parade of male visitors home, while the rat's bite brings out more changes such as Sophie attempting to hang herself and becoming a wheelchair-bound dominatrix. Meanwhile David indulges in her S&M fantasies but also becomes entangled with the maid, Maria (Sanchez), who's more than a little curious about all these bizarre developments.

Though basically classifiable as a comedy, Sitcom tosses in a number of shock elements including a wild monster finale that drew comparisons at the time to John Waters' Multiple Maniacs (with the overall concept also eliciting a lot of references to Teorema). The actual sitcom element here is less important than you'd expect, as the film gleefully subverts your expectations Sitcomat every turn and seems designed to get the most enthusiastic response possible out of its audience. Given Sitcomthe film's outrageous reputation, it isn't really explicit at all (apart from a funny Tinto Brass-style prosthetic in one shot) and gets most of its shock value out of tweaking any taboo it can find. As with Ozon's later films, it's packed with solid performances across the board and shot with a great deal of precision for what couldn't have been a great amount of money.

Sitcom proved to be a much talked-about sensation in France and got a decent art house release in the U.S. from Leisure Time Features, who also handled other French imports like Innocence. New Yorker Video released a DVD in 2004 in the U.S., but since there's no such thing as a good New Yorker release, that non-anamorphic, no-frills release was overpriced and easy to skip. Much better was the earlier 2001 French DVD from Film Office, which featured optional English subtitles and much better image quality. Extras on that disc included an audio commentary by Ozon and producer Olivier Delbosc, the Ozon short films Victor (1993) (12m57s) and Photo de famille (1988) (6m13s), a 14m24s reel of interviews with the actors, and trailers for this and other Ozon films. After that the film went under the radar for a long time until a 2020 Blu-ray in France from Studiocanal, which was weirdly discontinued not long afterwards. That release didn't feature English subtitles, but it was a major step up quality-wise and, along with porting over the actor interviews and the two short films (not remastered, and you can find them with English subtitles on U.S. DVD collections), it added a new Ozon interview (17m12s) that's nice to have if you Criminal Loversspeak Criminal LoversFrench.

Psychosexual undercurrents in fairy tales have been dissected by artists and critics for ages, so it's no small compliment to say that Ozon's second feature, Criminal Lovers, finds a novel spin on such a shopworn concept. Serene and ironically detached but passionate and horrifying in equal measure, this unorthodox mixture of lovers on the lam thriller and "Hansel and Gretel" continued to boost his reputation as one of France's most promising and gifted directors.

The enigmatic and sadistic Alice (Régnier) enjoys a close but teasing relationship with Luc (Rénier, star of Ozon's later Double Lover), her compliant classmate who allows her to manipulate his emotions thanks to his unfulfilled capacity for desire. Alice talks him into murdering a fellow student, Saïd (Kechiouche), who may or may not have raped and humiliated Alice earlier at school. The brutal stabbing leaves an inconvenient dead Criminal Loversbody the teens cart off into the woods, where they immediately lose their way after Criminal Loversa speedy burial. Their criminal activity has been monitored by a rough woodsman (Manojlovic) who traps them in his cabin when they sneak in to pilfer some food. Alice remains locked down in a basement while Luc is occasionally brought up for meal time conversation and bathing privileges. The woodsman professes to be an ogre who feeds on plump little boys and lean little girls, but his designs ultimately prove to be far more complicated. Meanwhile through flashbacks the twisted story of Alice, Luc, and their victim is revealed through a series of poetic diary entries and disturbing revelations.

Progressing almost imperceptibly from its seemingly mundane homicidal opening act, Criminal Lovers is surprising and engaging enough to support Ozon's often wild flights of fancy, most of which are designed to shock or amuse... or, most likely, both. The forest setting contrasts effectively with the stylized flashbacks, and even a simple shoplifting jaunt through a department store becomes a dreamy tangent thanks to the elegant camerawork and crafty, restrained use of music, in this case Lamb's "Górecki." While Sitcom was dramatically devoid of music, here Ozon starts to show the affinity he would develop for weaving together song and score, something that would Criminal Loversexplode later on in his pop musical mystery, 8 Women. Though the characters here remain ciphers at heart, Régnier takes top acting honors for her magnetic turn as Alice, a complex Criminal Loversperformance that turns a potentially facile and hateful character into a troubled, fascinating one whose sexual desires trigger a wholly irrational and dangerous penchant for murder. Film buffs will also have fun spotting references to other similarly themed films, the most obvious being Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter which is even quoted almost verbatim twice during the last five minutes.

The striking visuals of Criminal Lovers were barely appreciable when it first hit DVD from American distributor Strand Releasing, whose release had no relevant extras apart from a few other trailers. The non-anamorphic transfer and non-removeable subtitles ensured it was another Ozon disc you could easily bypass. The 2001 French DVD from Film Office was much, much better, featuring English subtitles and, in an interesting option never replicated anywhere else, a 2001 "version remontée" that edits the film into entirely chronological order. Also included are a 10m15s interview with the two leads (amusingly in the sinister cellar set) and the usual Ozon trailers. Again Studiocanal released a French Blu-ray in 2020 that made for a large upgrade, with no English subs but featuring a new Ozon interview (17m23s) and the archival cast interviews.

Apart from being gay Water Drops on Burning Rocksand unbelievably prolific, Ozon and the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder wouldn't seem to have much Water Drops on Burning Rocksin common. Nevertheless the meeting of these two devious minds could be witnessed in the exquisitely cruel and funny Water Drops on Burning Rocks (Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes), based on a 1965 Fassbinder play unseen until after his death. Impeccably cast and shot, Water Drops averts the potential staginess of its source and displays the strengths of both men's sensibilities. In fact, this film could also be considered the start of a Germanic trilogy of films from Ozon followed by 2016's Frantz and 2022's Peter von Kant (a gender-swapped version of Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant).

The four-act story begins when Leopold (former heartthrob Giraudau), a 50-year-old insurance salesman, brings home 20-year-old Franz (Zidi) to his swinging '70s Berlin apartment. Though Franz plans to marry Anna (Sagnier, later in Ozon's 8 Women and Swimming Pool), Leo quickly wins him over and turns him into his willing houseboy. Six months later the two have become a bickering couple, unable to separate sexual desire from the misery they thoughtlessly inflict on each other. When Leo goes out of town for business, Anna stops by to visit and tries to lure Franz back to her side. The situation becomes even more complicated when Leo returns early, just in time for the unexpected arrival of his ex-girlfriend, Vera (Anna Thomson), who has a few surprises of her own.

With its smooth editing and quirky sense of humor, Water Drops somehow never becomes depressing or overwrought. The kitschy wallpaper, shag carpeting, Water Drops on Burning Rocksand clothing somehow work perfectly in context with the film, though the undeniable centerpiece is the foursome's rousing dance routine to Tony Holiday's campy "Tanze Samba mit mir" (used in Water Drops on Burning Rocksits entirety for the U.S. trailer). The tone of the film is ultimately more Ozon than Fassbinder; the dark, glossy Ballhaus visuals which made that German enfant terrible's descents into misery so potent have been replaced by Ozon's austere, brightly lit, ironic compositions, more attuned to the wry but penetrating tactics of Sitcom. Very little of the "edgy" material in Water Drops, from its perverse plot twists to its surprisingly extensive female nudity (which earned Sagnier an enthusiastic fan base at the time), will seem especially novel to anyone familiar with '70s art cinema; instead Ozon appropriates the titillating elements to enhance his more serious study of human nature at its basest, where even the most sincere love can transform people into monsters.

Water Drops fared about as well as the two prior films on U.S. DVD with a non-anamorphic transfer and burned-in subtitles making it feel half-baked even in the early '00s. Extras on the disc include the aforementioned U.S. trailer, the French trailer (which contains some spoilers but thankfully has no subs), bios and filmographies for Ozon and Fassbinder, a fun sing-along subtitle option for "Tanze Samba" in English or German, and an English translation for the German poem Franz recites twice in the film to poignant effect. The 2001 French DVD release from Film Office features optional English subtitles and a French-only commentary by Ozon, cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, production designer Arnaud de Moleron, script supervisor Agathe Grau, and costume designer Pascaline Chavanne. Also included are the 1994 Ozon short Une rose entre nous (26m11s), a 24m18s reel of interviews with all four actors, and trailers. For some reason this film never had a Blu-ray release in France, but Water Drops on Burning Rocksaround 2021 it did turn up in a nice Water Drops on Burning RocksHD Studiocanal scan streaming from BFI Classics.

The 2024 Altered Innocence set features the same excellent Studiocanal scans for all three films, with Sitcom and Criminal Lovers looking identical to the now rare French counterparts. Water Drops is wonderful to finally have in HD on physical media, and it's a real feast for the eyes as well as a big step up from its SD predecessors. The framing in Water Drops is 1.66:1 as always but with more horizontal info here, fixing some obvious squishing on the earlier releases. For some reason one sequence, the long conversation between Franz and Leopold in front of the windows on their first night, is reframed and a bit tighter here which doesn't matter much either way; see the first frame grab comparison below. All of the films feature DTS-HD 2.0 French stereo tracks with optional English subtitles; Criminal Lovers makes the most aggressive use of channel separation by far with a powerful, immersive sound mix for both the music and sound effects. On the extras side, Water Drops has the one commentary in the set courtesy of Cerise Howard and Rohan Spong, who mainly focus on Fassbinder and Ozon (understandably) with a focus on the imagery and themes that would pop up throughout their work including a relevant dance bit from In a Year of 13 Moons. There's a fair amount of dead space after the hour mark, but they're enthusiastic and have a lot of good material here. A new interview with Rideau (13m15s) covers him being approached for Sitcom after his breakthrough in Wild Reeds and accepting before the script was finalized, the shooting in the suburbs that required a train commute every day, and the genial atmosphere on the set. The video essay "Little Deaths: Loss and Coming of Age in François Ozon’s First Chapter" (25m55s) by Kat Ellinger examines the director's possible inclusion in the French New Extremity wave (to which he ultimately bears virtually no connection), his place among fellow filmmakers who were challenging social ideals, and the coming of age theme that ties this trio of titles together. A new compilation trailer and bonus trailers round out the disc, while the package itself comes with a pull-out poster with the original Criminal Lovers artwork by Pierre et Gilles and an essay by Juan Barquin and Trae DeLellis, "Transgress, Transform, Transcend," exploring how the early focus on shock value could distract from the studies in these films of identity, queerness, destruction, and desire.

 

SITCOM: Altered Innocence (Blu-ray)

SitcomSitcomSitcom Sitcom Sitcom

SITCOM: Studiocanal (Blu-ray)

SitcomSitcom Sitcom SitcomSitcom

SITCOM: Film Office (DVD)

SitcomSitcom SitcomSitcom Sitcom

CRIMINAL LOVERS: Altered Innocence (Blu-ray)

Criminal LoversCriminal LoversCriminal Lovers Criminal Lovers Criminal Lovers

CRIMINAL LOVERS: Studiocanal (Blu-ray)

Criminal LoversCriminal LoversCriminal Lovers Criminal Lovers Criminal Lovers

CRIMINAL LOVERS: Film Office (DVD)

Criminal LoversCriminal Lovers Criminal LoversCriminal Lovers Criminal Lovers

WATER DROPS ON BURNING ROCKS: Altered Innocence (Blu-ray)

Water Drops on Burning RocksWater Drops on Burning RocksWater Drops on Burning Rocks Water Drops on Burning Rocks Water Drops on Burning Rocks

WATER DROPS ON BURNING ROCKS: Film Office (DVD)

Water Drops on Burning RocksWater Drops on Burning Rocks Water Drops on Burning RocksWater Drops on Burning Rocks Water Drops on Burning Rocks

 

Reviewed on June 20, 2024