The New Girlfriend (2014) – What Lies Beneath (Ain’t So Bad, Ain’t So Bad)

François Ozon is to Claude Chabrol as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are to John Wyndham.

John Wyndham is a post-war British science fiction writer who has long been tarred with the masterful brushstrokes of Brian Aldiss who dismissed his work as a series of cosy catastrophes. The term ‘cosy catastrophe’ stems from the fact that Wyndham was terribly fond of narratives in which everything winds up being destroyed except for the novel’s protagonists and the middle-class lifestyle and values to which they cling. For example, The Day of the Triffids opens with a meteor shower that blinds the majority of the British population. Hoping to make their way out of London, the protagonists wind up being trapped by a mad visionary who is building a new civilisation in which the sighted are manacled to the blind and forced into polyamorous relationships. Needless to say, the characters wind up escaping to the Isle of Wight where they meet up with other sighted individuals and pursue what we are lead to believe will be a more conventional middle-class lifestyle. Fear of change and yearning for the familiar is also present in Wyndham’s later novel The Midwich Cuckoos in which humans are impregnated with human DNA resulting in the emergence of a group of super-powered children who wind up being destroyed before their powers can pose a threat to the rest of humanity. One of the more interesting things about The Midwich Cuckoos is that it was published in 1957, six years before Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created The X-men, a series of comics in which super-powered youngsters fight to change the world for the better.

All three writers used science fiction to expose the instability of the status quo and explore the possibility of revolutionary change. However, while Jack Kirby and Stan Lee seemed to welcome these changes with open arms, John Wyndham struggled to see beyond the confines of his own middle-class existence.

The well-educated child of rural pharmacists who moved to Paris for his studies only to discover a love of cinema, Claude Chabrol first made his name as a film critic before following his contemporaries out of the magazine business and into the world of art house film. Early films such as Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins may bristle with the town-and-country animosity of a man who never considered himself Parisian but the films that made him an immortal all speak to the fragility of middle-class identities.

Like many worldly and privileged people, Chabrol was both drawn to and repulsed by the kinds of lifestyles that would have been considered abnormal or unacceptable by ordinary middle-class people. Les Biches – the film that began his most celebrated period – involves bisexual women, gay men, and an assortment of misshapen love triangles that speak both to the ‘straightness’ of Chabrol’s lived experience and his desire to understand what lay on the other side of propriety. By today’s standards, Les Biches seems rather old fashioned as Chabrol presents non-heterosexual relationships as being not just different but downright alien.

Chabrol’s inability to empathise with Les Biches’ characters may explain the rapprochement with the crime and psychological thriller genres that followed. Indeed, while Les Biches suggests that middle-class identities dissolve into something alien and beautiful, films like The Unfaithful Wife, The Beast Must Die, and Just Before Nightfall all suggest that the destabilisation of middle-class identities begins in sex and ends in violence. Many of Chabrol’s finest films are defined by their ambivalence in so far as they function like psychological mysteries that lavish attention on beautifully enigmatic characters before inviting us to make a leap of the imagination that will help us to understand why the characters felt compelled to do the things they did.  This approach to the question of social and psychological otherness is particularly evident in his late-stage classic La Ceremonie, in which two peculiar young women make friends and wind-up murdering the middle-class family who showed them kindness. Why would someone do such a thing? Chabrol doesn’t understand, cannot understand, and must understand.

François Ozon is a director who has always been at ease with the forms of love and affection that lie outside the boundaries of conventional middle-class living. His first film Sitcom describes a family who descend into sexual transgression after the family patriarch brings home a small caged rat. The insane and disproportionate nature of the family’s reaction to the new pet echoes Chabrol’s ideas about the instability of middle-class identities but Ozon dares to suggest that the geeky teenage son might be happier having orgies in his bedroom and that the grumpy teenage daughter might very well be better off as a vicious dominatrix.

Like Chabrol, Ozon’s films frequently revolve around murder but, unlike Chabrol, Ozon chooses to depict these murders as either cathartic (as in Swimming Pool) or simply as the growing pains of a new – and stronger – subjectivity (as in In the House or Jeune & Jolie). When characters do remain wedded to the old status quo (as in Under the Sand) it is inevitably treated as a sign of emotional stagnation and psychological morbidity.

Ozon’s last film The New Girlfriend is an interesting point of comparison as it not only deals with a new subjectivity emerging from the ruins of conventional middle-class lives, it also positions Ozon’s tanks in Chabrol’s front garden by being not only an adaptation of a story by one of Chabrol’s favourite writers but also an adaptation that replaces the blood-soaked ending of the source material with an ending that is beautiful, empowering, and supremely progressive.

 

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5×2 (2004) – The Space around Love

Characterisation is a funny thing. Characters obviously have no inner lives and no existence beyond the indentations they leave on a text and yet a well-drawn character can seem human enough to warrant an emotional response from the audience. Characterisation works by tapping into the various short-cuts humans use in social interaction; As humans, we can never know what another person is thinking or feeling but we can infer their emotional state by considering their behaviour and comparing it to what feelings we think might prompt us to act in a similar fashion. Characterisation can thus be thought of as the art of building an evocative human shape from a series of descriptive passages. Strike the right poses at the right moments and a character will leap off the page but fail to make a character’s poses recognisable or fail to make those poses coherent and you will be left with a character that seems lifeless and inhuman.

Different cinematic traditions have different standards of characterisation. For example, travel back to 1930s Hollywood and it was still quite common for directors to use voice-overs and have their characters tell the audience what they were thinking. Fast-forward to contemporary Hollywood blockbusters and you find directors relying quite heavily on audience-recognisable character types whose inner lives are made accessible through a combination of unambiguous musical cues and absurd theatrical gestures including sinking to their knees and bellowing ‘Nooo’ into a rain-filled sky. Thankfully, not all cinematic traditions are as heavy-handed; Cinema originating in cultures with low-levels of emotional disclosure is far more subtle in its emotional topography and so audiences are forced to pay closer attention and approach scenes in different ways in order to catch the poses that might allow them to infer the presence of an internal state or collective vibe. The subtlety of character beats in Japanese film also explains its long-standing relationship with a European art house tradition in which directors seek to deliberately attenuate their characterisation in a bid to create characters that seem more complex and ambiguous. However, despite European film’s desire to keep its characters aloof, the last fifty years have still seen the emergence of not just stock characters but stock poses that serve as short-cuts in films that should not be about the easy answers. How many times have you seen art house films in which characters stare into the middle-distance impassively? How many times have you seen art house films in which a character fails to react to some devastating event and yet winds up over-reacting to some seemingly unrelated incident? As a general rule of thumb, if you are an art house director and your characterisation techniques are showing up on Mad Men then it is time to get yourself some new techniques… which is where François Ozon’s 5×2 comes in.

 

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Swimming Pool (2003) – Touched by The Gods of Indecision

One of the enduring concerns of human culture is how to deal with thoughts and feelings that are not recognisably our own.

Much like the ancients, who associated odd feelings and passing moods with particular deities, Saint Augustine viewed unwelcome thoughts as something external to the self. According to Augustine, our urge to transgress God’s laws stems from a wound inflicted by Original Sin and passed down through the generations by sexual contact. Later churchmen would describe the concept of Original Sin as:

“Privation of the righteousness which every man ought to possess”

Inspired by the Augustinian concept of Concupiscence but intent upon creating a materialistic account of human nature, Sigmund Freud divided the self into different parts and invoked the concept of the unconscious as a place where unspeakable thoughts and desires boil and occasionally rise up, hammering at the walls of the conscious self. Though no longer central to scientific accounts of human nature, Freud’s account of the self remains incredibly influential. Artists and mental health professionals conspire to present the mind as a city under constant pressure from a vast and barely manageable neurochemical hinterland where entire streets pass in and out of the surrounding jungle. The question of how we navigate such a city, where we draw the line between town and country, ours and not-ours not only endures to this day but also accounts for many of the most striking literary and philosophical innovations of the 20th Century.

Like many psychological thrillers, Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool follows a character’s attempt to repress, confront and ultimately claim ownership of a series of unwelcome and unrecognisable thoughts, but as sophisticated as the film’s distinctions may be, it is never entirely clear where the film’s main protagonist begins and ends.

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Jeune et Jolie (2013) – Taking Your Sexuality Off-Grid

JJ1Art house film has always had a problematic relationship with female sexuality. Though art house directors are far more likely to construct their films around strong female characters than their Hollywood counterparts, their engagement with these characters’ sexualities is often limited to stripping an actress naked and posing her in a series of titillating tableaux such as those found in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme D’Or winning film Blue is the Warmest Colour. The further a female character ventures from the realms of male fantasy, the more likely it is that her sexuality will be turned against her and used as a sign of encroaching madness, alienation or spiritual collapse. In art house film, sad men may become murderers but sad women will always become prostitutes.

The tragedy of problematic narratives is that they frequently outlive the social attitudes that first informed them. For example, while the films of Luis Bunuel may have been informed by the remnants of his Jesuitical education, the phrases and characters he helped to develop in films like Belle de Jour passed into common usage and came to form part of the basic vocabulary of art house film. Used and revisited for decade after decade, the character of the fallen woman is now so familiar to art house audiences that directors no longer feel the need to spell out why promiscuous women are sad women… they just show us a female character having loads of sex and allow us to fill in the blanks. We have been trained through repetition and this training followed us out of the cinema and into our daily lives meaning that, without ever having been subjected to an argument about the evils of promiscuity, our first reaction to promiscuous women is to assume that there is something terribly wrong with them.

The alternative to allowing our culture to train us is to question the values embedded in stock cinematic phrases and champion works that set out to subvert stock phrases and use them to draw our attention to the sexism and racism that is perpetuated by our own intellectual laziness. Thankfully, while the 2013 Cannes jury was content to give the biggest prize in art house film to a work that presented sexually empowered women as hollow vessels and childlike victims, another director in competition set out to pick a fight with the myth of the fallen woman. The director in question is Francois Ozon and his film is Jeune et Jolie.

 

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Sous Le Sable (2000) – Everyone Needs a Little Cup of Stars

SLS1There are few situations to which the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House are not pressingly germane:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.

Often spoken of as a ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House is more rewardingly read as a portrait of a fragile mind under intense pressure. Scarred by decades of servitude to a sick and deranged mother, Eleanor Vance is a woman who carries her reality with her like a snail carries its shell. While the novel’s melody is dominated by Hugh Crain’s house and the miseries that befell his family, the harmony is all about the way that Eleanor picks things up and uses them to fashion a world more comforting and endurable than absolute reality. Everyone needs a little cup of stars.

One of the great joys of Jackson’s novel is the way that she manages to blur the boundaries of the real, the supernatural and the outright hallucinatory without ever bothering to draw attention to the lack of subjective difference between these different categories. For Jackson, this uncertainty is so universal that it simply does not merit commentary… it’s all one big sordid mess. Many films and books have been drawn to this ambiguity but while great works such Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl add their own ingredients to the ambiguous brew, most works that use these tropes yearn for clear dividing lines between the metaphorical and the concrete, the material and the fantastical, the sane and the insane, the true and the false. This is why you are more likely to encounter the carefully nested realities of films like Inception and Jacob’s Ladder than you are the happy ambiguities of a film like Total Recall or The Descent. Though definitely a film with a clear dividing line between reality and fantasy, Francois Ozon’s Sous le Sableis a film that is intensely relaxed about the ambiguities of madness.

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REVIEW – In The House (2012)

ITHFilmJuice have my review of François Ozon’s In The House.

The film is set in a devastatingly modernist French high school where a bitter failed writer grinds out a living teaching French literature to teenagers who can barely read or write. Suddenly, the teacher’s gloom is lifted when one of his students hands in an astonishingly dry and sarcastic appraisal of a middle-class home he recently visited. His interest captured, the teacher encourages the boy’s talent and soon every piece of homework becomes another wry take-down of middle-class life. What makes this film interesting is that, rather than focusing upon the emotional connection between failed writer and ambitious student (YOU’RE THE MAN NOW, DOG!), the film uses the relationship as a metaphor for the creative process as the student is effectively writing for an audience of one who gives him detailed feedback on what he wants to see in the next chapter. Brilliantly, the teacher’s requests that the student alter his plot results in the student doing things that directly impact the teacher’s life forcing the audience to suffer for their vicarious literary joy.

One way of looking at In The House is to say that it features a more restrained approach to the shaggy postmodernism of Charlie Kaufman. For example, as with Being John Malkovich, the characters in this film blur the lines between the real and the fictional. Similarly, as with Synecdoche New York, the entirety of In The House feels like an intentionally doomed attempt at capturing the entire creative process in a single unwieldy metaphor. The problem is that Kaufman realises that the cleverness of postmodernism is inherently less satisfying than the emotional payload of a sweeping narrative arc and so he builds these huge metaphorical structures in an effort to replace emotional closure with a sense of wonder. Ozon’s comparative restraint means that, unlike many of Kaufman’s projects, In The House works as a proper story right up until the end but it seems entirely reasonable to suggest that ending the film on a flight of postmodern fantasy would have been more effective than Ozon’s discontented trudge.

I’ve recently read two quite interesting books that attempt to deal with the issue of ironic detachment from the emotional manipulations of narrative. David Thomson’s typically shaggy and typically wonderful book on the history of film The Big Screen finds him deeply troubled by the way in which the rise of advertising appears to have somehow compromised the relationship between work and audience. Prior to TV and Radio, people would submit themselves to a particular narrative and stay with it till the end. Now, they find themselves jostled out of the flow by adverts… tiny self-contained stories injected into the flow of a film or TV programme but designed to sell rather than move or entertain. After combing through the history of cinema, the book ends with Thomson experimentally watching a film backwards:

You also discover what a sweet, artificial thing story is. That is not a mocking of narrative, simply a revelation that story is just a series of tricks or steps, a mechanism, not too hard to guess in advance, and as systematic and serviceable as, say, a staircase — and as logical and mathematical. A story is something made and made up; it is a disguise of life, artfully and kindly done, but not life. It is lifelike. And stories are so artful, so manufactured, that they might as easily run backwards or forward

This vision of narrative as a system of emotional control also runs through Douglas Rushkoff’s recent (and not quite wonderful) book Present Shock. Rushkoff argues that the world around us does often makes very little sense as decades of advertising have encouraged us to find ways of protecting ourselves from stories that would manipulate our emotions:

Aristotle was the first, but certainly not the last, to identify the main parts of this kind of story, and he analyzed them as if he were a hacker reverse-engineering the function of a computer program. The story mechanics he discovered are very important for us to understand, as they are still in use by governments, corporations, religions, and educators today as they attempt to teach us and influence our behaviors. They are all the more important for the way they have ceased to work on members of a society who have gained the ability to resist their spell.

While I am still in the process of digesting a lot of these ideas, I think there is a lot of meat on the bones of the idea that a lot of contemporary culture is post-postmodern in the sense that it is built with an explicit aim of overcoming the air of ironic detachment that postmodernism has encouraged us to adopt. Kaufman in particular is quite an interesting figure as all of his films begin in the real world, deconstruct the real world and end with mad flights of fantasy. I think Kaufman does this because he realises that a) neat narrative arcs are at least as ‘false’ as CGI fantasias and b) CGI fantasias are probably a more reliable way of having an impact on an audience than a happy or a tragic ending.