The Accidental Feminist: An Interview with Francois Ozon

03/24/2011 12:37 PM |

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François Ozon’s penchant for switching between genres makes him feel like a throwback to Hollywood’s golden age, but his films all share a bemused acceptance of human frailty, a matter-of-fact approach to sex and sexuality, and an optimistic, life-affirming tone. We talked to him earlier this month when he was in town to flak Potiche, a big-hearted comedy about a patronized 70s housewife who comes into her own, starring Catherine Deneuve as the trophy wife of the title. The film opens here tomorrow.

You’ve said you are a fish in water when you’re making films and you seem to be feel equally at home in all kinds of genres, from comedy to drama to melodrama to some mixture of the three. That makes it hard to typecast your work, and we live in an age of branding and one-sentence pitches. Do you think the diversity of your work has made it a little harder for you to find audiences or funding?
I think I understood very quickly when I began to make films that if you want to be free in your choice of films, to make the kind of films you want, you have to be close to the production, knowing the price of things. That’s why I am able to make a film a year, because I try to adapt each film to the size of the budget. My teacher at film school was Eric Rohmer, and Eric Rohmer was his own producer too, so I think I learned a lot about that. It’s pragmatic. I’m a pragmatic director.

David Thompson said some of your short films are “so piquant as narratives as to make one ask yet again — what happened to the short?” Is short film a format you particularly love? Would you still be making them if there were a commercial market for them—or if you weren’t so pragmatic?
I love short films. Jean-Luc Godard said it was a way to faire sa game—you know faire sa game? It’s good practice. You don’t have money when you do short films, so you have to find the best way to tell your story without money, to get to the idea—to get to the essence of things. Sometimes, in the cinema, we have too much money. But when you don’t have money you are obliged to make choices, to have a real point of view on things.

You mix different tones a lot in Potiche, as you often do in your movies. This one is both a farce and a classic triumph-of-the-underdog story. Did you have any particular kind of movie in mind when you were making it?
I had in mind the comedies of the 70s done in France. When I was a child I loved them, but when I did the work on the film, I saw again these films and I thought “Oh, I should not watch them again,” because they were not good. They were typically French comedies you never saw in America, in the spirit of the French bourgeoisie, quite theatrical and funny. So I stopped watching these movies and I worked with my memories of them—especially for the character of Robert [the heroine’s oppressive husband].

There was a huge star in France called Louis de Finesse who was always doing the parts of the middle-aged boss who was mean with his wife, with his employees. The French loved him because it was like therapy to see someone who was so mean to everybody. So I asked Fabrice Luchini to have him in mind for his acting.

Catherine Deneuve had not done a lot of comedy, I think, when you cast her in 8 Women
She did many comedies in the 60s. She did the film with Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Le sauvage. But, you know, doing a comedy doesn’t mean you are acting differently. Good actors of comedy are people who are very serious. Catherine is very honest in her way of acting.

And the good thing is now, at her age, she is afraid of nothing. I’m sure, with another actress, she would have said “I don’t want to wear this ridiculous suit,” but she was not afraid of that. Because she’s clever, she knows it’s good for the film because it’s the evolution of the character, and she was very involved in the film.

Even in ridiculous situations she’s very elegant. And I think she trusted me, because it’s the second time we worked together. Also, she was in love with the character of Suzanne Pujol. She had in mind someone she knew, I think, some friend of her mother or something. She wanted very much to perform this part.

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You said she was very involved in making the film. How did you work with her before filming started?
Before beginning the adaptation I asked her, “Would you be my potiche?” and she said yes. If she had said no I wouldn’t have done the film. She read the different versions of my script and followed the evolution of the cast. She didn’t force me to take this one or not this one. She was just involved and happy to be in the mood of the film.

I think Catherine, as an actress, needs to be close to the mise en scene, to the director, to know exactly where he wants to go.

Your movies often seem to be about the importance of following your passion, becoming your true self. That’s true of Potiche, where Deneuve’s character comes into her own when she stops accepting the limitations other people put on her. Do you think there’s something about that storyline that attracts you, or do I just keep seeing it in your movies because I like those kinds of stories?
[Laughs] Yes, that’s true. It’s my optimistic side, to show that it’s possible to change, to discover something in yourself.

I love to show strong women. For me it’s important in film to begin with a character in a certain situation, at a certain moment, and at the end it’s another character, and you have followed the journey of this character during the film. Potiche is the story of a woman who says, at the beginning of the film, “Where is my place? My place is not in the kitchen, not in the bedroom, not at the factory.” And at the end of the film, she finds her place. In a certain way, I realized, it’s a kind of a feminist movie because it shows that women have to find their place in society. When they are born, they don’t have everything. They have to fight for it.

So you didn’t think it was a feminist film while you were making it?
I didn’t ask these questions, you know. I knew it had to deal with feminist things: the fact that the daughter who pretends to be modern is more conservative than the mother, and the fact the secretary becomes a kind of suffragette—which was not in the play [the movie was based on], actually. But I don’t like usually to have messages in my films. I want to give people the opportunity to think on their own. I’m not a politician or anything. So I realized I did a political movie without wanting to.

But it’s a good thing, I think, to do politics in a comedy rather than in a drama, because in a drama it can become heavy and you have to agree with what you see. But a comedy, it’s light, it’s funny, but inside it can be strong. It can touch you deeply.

You don’t seem to be part of a trend of any sort. Is there a group of filmmakers you identify with?
I think I would have loved to have been a director in the 40s or 50s in Hollywood.

Yes! You remind me of some of the Hollywood directors of the time like George Cukor, maybe William Wyler, a little bit Douglas Sirk.
Yes. George Cukor especially. I would like to be able to do Westerns, to do a musical, a comedy, a family drama… I would love to be this kind of director. Who were not considered as auteurs at the time, but afterward we realized…

There’s that typecasting again—the tendency not to take people as seriously if they don’t do specialize in a certain kind of movie or have a very strong, consistent style. Do you think there’s less of a tendency to pigeonhole directors in France?

They do the same in France, but I think it’s easier because cinema is art first in France, before it’s industry. In America first it is industry, and then it can become art, but that’s not the important thing. You have to make money in America. When we speak about the box office in France, it’s in terms of admissions. It’s a big difference, and I think that means many things in terms of the difference in making movies in these two places.