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By Amy Nicholson
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So how about a nice dose of R. W. Fassbinder, the late German wunderkind whose movies had everything to do with sex and ideas and ideas about sex? Hmmm, might work.
Fassbinder was the prodigious wild man of 1970s Euro cinema whose name has long remained unknown in this country, but his influence on European and American filmmakers has been profound. His investigations of sexuality as a battleground for power and identity, considered scandalous in his era, are now an everyday subject for all sorts of films, from mainstreamers like Basic Instinct to the latest award-winning independent film.
One such indie, the French-produced Water Drops on Burning Rocks, doesn't merely emulate Fassbinder, it draws its lifeblood from an unproduced play the master wrote at the age of nineteen. French director François Ozon, a comer, had planned to write his own script about the breakdown of a relationship amidst the minutiae of everyday life, but when he stumbled on Fassbinder's script, he immediately sought to bring it to the screen. The result is decidedly an homage to and a continuation of the Fassbinder legacy.
The story is simple. In 1970s Germany Leopold (Gerard Giraudeau), sleek and handsome at 50, brings towheaded Franz (Malik Zidi), naive and all of twenty, back to his bachelor pad to seduce him. Franz falls hard for his suave, paternalistic lover but soon must struggle to accommodate the increasingly irritable and impatient Leo. Stifled by Leo's tyranny, Franz rebels and threatens to move out. But Franz is unable to pull away from Leo's charismatic allure and remains at their flat as Leo leaves for a weeklong business trip. Enter Anna, Franz's perky, nubile ex-girlfriend (Ludivine Sagnier), who succeeds in enticing Franz anew with round-the-clock sex, which is part of her plan to run off with Franz to begin an idyllic married life. Leo's sudden return and a surprise visit from his own ex-lover threaten to turn Franz's increasingly complicated love life into a four-way free-for-all.
Such sexy switcheroos have long been grist for French films, from the broadest farces to the subtle and increasingly elegiac tales of Eric Rohmer, the Nouvelle Vague maitre who continues to create films of character and nuance with only the slimmest of plotlines. Here Ozon certainly has more narrative possibilities, but like Rohmer, he's more interested in the dance of human relationships: The main minuet (between Leo and Franz) takes up the first half of the film with nary another character in sight, and the entire film takes place inside Leo's apartment.
Giraudeau, a popular star in France best remembered in this country for his nasty cleric in Ridicule, is hilarious as the initially dashing but increasingly argumentative Leo, who loves 'em but can't leave 'em as he keeps shacking up with his latest conquest. Giraudeau is terrific in the details. His Leo never figures out that the things that drive him crazy about poor eager-to-please Franz are precisely the traits most apparent in his own cheerless persona. Leo ends up transforming Franz into the very personality he most dislikes: his own. Giraudeau's performance is embellished by tres droll design work from set designer Arnaud de Moleron and costumer Pascaline Chavanne. Together they have conjured up a realistically tacky apartment for Leo and a wardrobe that managed to be tasteless and stuffy at the same time. Newcomer Zidi is an affecting Franz, innocent but open to experience. His awakening to same-sex romance and his subsequent frustration and escalating resentment are a tall order for any actor: There's nothing theatrical or sensational here -- no fights, chases, or special effects -- just a camera on a face following a young man's emotional journey. Zidi's simple performance lends an honesty that balances this film's wilder elements.
And wilder elements there are. When Leo and Franz's domestic war is invaded by the other characters, a number of clever surprises and reversals come off in classic farcical fashion. Anna's desperate attempt to lure Franz away from Leo takes a surprising turn when Leo returns, a spin that is spun again and yet again. All these last-minute surprises may make for chaos (the Leo and Franz throughline certainly gets lost in the late going), but this is one film that's pretty difficult to second-guess: These characters seem capable of anything at any moment.
Fassbinder, writing at age nineteen, clearly understood the uses of sexuality and sexual identity, but not as the means for liberation, the then-accepted notion of the cultural elite. Fassbinder understood the darker aspects of sex as a tool for power and oppression. This perception for one so young is remarkable, but what must have been a startling narrative in 1972 now seems routine. Ozon recognizes this by playing up the droller elements of his material. His actors are adept at deadpan delivery, and the dialogue at times seems a parody of every French screen crisis we've ever seen: You want to kill yourself? Why? Why not? But Ozon is never able to establish or maintain a sense that he knows what this material is about or where it is going. Instead he seems content to follow Fassbinder's reckless lead, like an inexperienced rider on a headstrong young horse with the bit in its teeth.
Both the plotline and the dialogue suggest that Fassbinder was already working in the métier that defined his mature career: dark farce, an off-kilter tragicomedy that careens from seriousness to laughter and back again. Certainly the early Leo/Franz scenes manage this delicate gyration, but several of Ozon's later choices seem heavy-handed, directorial impositions that might satisfy the need to assert his stamp on the dead master's material but fail to help his own cause in so doing. Instead of such impositions, Ozon might have focused more attention on the film's resolution, the one place in the script where the living would have done well to rewrite the dead.
Nevertheless Water Drops on Burning Rocks is a diverting, engaging film, the sort of Euro concoction that continues to attract a small but devoted local following while the masses prefer to sizzle on the beaches and the dance floors. French film buffs should be pleased as well as those seeking an antidote, if only for a short, air-conditioned hour and a half, to these dog days and nights.
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