Francois Ozon: Regarde la mer and other short films Review

DVD may help swing the balance a little, yet still the feature enjoys far greater prominence over the short film. When judging the works of a great director, their smaller scale efforts are generally appraised as mere footnotes. In part this may be down to availability – it’s much easier to track down Antonioni’s L’avventura, say, than it is one of his brief documentaries on Italy – yet even when we do get the chance to catch up with an early Martin Scorsese or David Lynch, we’re almost pre-programmed to approach them with academic interest rather than on their own terms; it’s more often than not a case of what they symbolise, pre-figure or accompany as opposed to what they offer in their own right.

The mention of Scorsese and Lynch is productive insofar as both have worked prolifically outside of the feature film even as they’ve enjoyed their greatest success. Television series, documentaries (both short- and long-format), internet doodles, music videos, mass-audience commercials, and so on, have all featured alongside their more widely-recognised efforts and yet only the first two mentioned – and no doubt this comes down to length – have come under the same level of scrutiny, and thus attained a similar weight, to their Raging Bulls and Blue Velvetss. Surely, however, each should be on an equal footing. After all, it would be safe to say that the directors themselves would never consider these “minor additions”, or as less significant than the major works, especially during the production stage.

And so it should be that our own reaction should be the same. We seem perfectly willing to shift the goalposts when it comes to certain names: Chris Marker’s oeuvre is so all-over-the-place (what with DVD-ROMs, political agit-prop, dreamlike documentaries and the occasional fictional piece) that, most obviously, La Jetée is never ranked as a lesser piece; likewise, you’d be hard pressed to acknowledge that The Phantom Tollbooth was Chuck Jones’ finest achievement simply because it was the longest, but then he worked so extensively within the short film format that it would be crazy to do otherwise. (And the same goes for the silent comedians, numerous experimental figures and most animators, whether Nick Park of the Quay Brothers.)

Essentially, what this preamble boils down to is a plea to acknowledge a What’s Opera Doc?, Meshes of the Afternoon, Begone Dull Care, a Kurt Kren or a William Raban as being just as important in cinematic terms as an Ordet, Taxi Driver or La Règle du jeu. More to the point, ie this particular Francois Ozon compilation under scrutiny, it’s a means of expressing that DVD collections such as this shouldn’t be considered simply as for “the fans” wishing to satisfy a certain curiosity, as many would view them, but as being as equally deserving of release and, seeing as this is an Ozon review, as satisfying to the newcomer as a first glimpse of Under the Sand would provide, or 8 Femmes.

As such I’ll try to avoid comparisons to the director’s features as a means of superficial expression. Yes, we can note how Regarde la mer’s protagonist prefigures the Charlotte Rampling characters in Swimming Pool and Under the Sand. Yes, the shock tactics of Sitcom, the camp sensibility of 8 Femmes or the theatricality of Water Drops on Burning Rocks are all, respectively, plain to see in one short or another. And indeed, I could write of this collection would most likely satisfy those who rate Ozon’s 5x2 as his finest work. Yet to do so would merely enforce the attitudes laid out above – and to state my case again, these film deserve more. After all, these are works that interweave with the features; there’s no cut-off point in 1997 (the year Sitcom debuted) and so they cannot simply be viewed as calling cards or stepping-stones. In a couple of cases they even surpass the more widely seen works on a number of levels.

That said, compilations such as these – even ones dedicated to a sole filmmaker – do have a tendency towards being something of a mixed bag. But then you could also argue that most filmmakers fail to maintain the same level of quality throughout a career of whatever length. You are always going to have your highlights and lowlights, your missed opportunities and flawed endeavours. And, as you’d expect, Regarde la mer and other short films, as the BFI have dubbed this release, is no exception. On a strictly personal level, four impressed me greatly, whilst the other three proved merely interesting; a subjective viewpoint, of course, though a similar balance is likely to strike many.

So what do we have on offer? The attendant booklet’s filmography reveals that this isn’t a complete collection (the number of titles would almost treble were this the case), but that’s no reason to be disappointed. Action vérité (1994) is the earliest short, four-minutes in the presence of a quartet of game-playing young teenagers. La Petit mort (1995) presents a bleak family portrait. Regarde la mer (1996) is a slow-burning, intimate psychodrama. Une Robe d’été (1996) lightens the mood with its playful polysexual partnerings. Scènes de lit (1996, clearly a busy year for Ozon) offers variations on a single theme: as the title puts it, bedroom scenes. X2000 (1998) does likewise, but on a more paranoid level. And Un Leveur de rideau (2006) comes with a starry cast, strong sense of theatricality and more than a little taste of Eric Rohmer about it.

Regarde la mer is clearly the centrepiece. The film to herald Ozon as a major French filmmaking talent (though previous shorts had made him something of a mainstay on the festival circuit), it’s a Polanski-esque scare piece. Bookended by the cries of a young child, it plays some clever tricks with psychodrama clichés and proves far more satisfying than the standard Hollywood “yuppie invasion” movie (cf Pacific Heights, Panic Room, etc). Revelling in its ordinariness, Regarde la mer focuses on the small moments and the details. It poses questions but never quite reveals true answers, allowing the viewer to become slowly engrossed in what is, essentially, a very simple set-up: solitary mother and 10-month-old child encounter younger, mysterious stranger. Undercurrents both dramatic and sexual slowly evolve and grow more overt taking the tension along with it. Rarely do you see a filmmaker at such an early stage in his career (Ozon was just coming out of his twenties) demonstrate such complete command.

The arguable highpoint, however, is Une Robe d’été. As the title suggests it’s something of a summer movie and, indeed, Ozon would appear to be on holiday – and enjoying himself immensely. Beautiful people, drama of no consequences (ie, no darkness), smiles all round and a sing-a-long to camera, it’s a pure delight. You could accuse it of being slight, but then it’s also unabashedly fun. Indeed, paranoia would appear to stalk the rest of the disc. Scènes de lit may provide some humour, but it’s of a darker variety. Wry perhaps, but hardly fun. Similarly the near wordless X2000 manages to be both edgy and dreamlike; perfectly constructed, and another highpoint certainly, yet once again Ozon seems far removed from lightness and joy.

But don’t let this be off-putting. For our director always comes to these film with tremendous intimacy. This mirrors what’s happening on-screen – the characters being myriad friends, family, lovers and one night stands – and Ozon always empathises, whether with teenage misfits, an eyeless whore or a photographer who’s relationship with his father has gone well beyond breaking point. Furthermore, he wishes for us to share in that intimacy. Un Petit mort and Action vérité both demonstrate the same rawness of execution: cheap film stock or videotape, real sound unreliant on scoring, and numerous close-ups. We’re with these characters whether we like it or not.

In fact, the only time Ozon allows himself some distance is in Un Leveur de rideau (A Curtain Raiser). Starring – and this is the only instance where the word “starring” seems appropriate – Mathieu Almaric of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and upcoming Bond villain fame and The Dreamers’ Louis Garrel, this is a film based more on performance and dialogue than any overall mood. As said, it greatly recalls Rohmer, that is his modern day romantic fables, and is arguably the most “mature” work on display. Bruno (Garrel) waits with his friend Pierre (Almaric) for the arrival of Rosette (Vahina Giocante) announcing that he is to break off their relationship. Sharp dialogue and smooth, unintrusive filmmaking prevail; a vignette, perhaps, but none the weaker for it.

Of course, some may find it the disc’s strongest offering and this, to some extent, is the point. Regarde la mer and other short films has much to offer, a whole range of registers, but by no means is it a collection solely there for Ozon completists. They may very well prove to be its key audience, though hopefully it can snare the casually intrigued too. There’s nothing less substantial or ultimately less important than anything else in Ozon’s body of work, merely a filmmaker making films with the same force and intention as found in his more obviously “grand” undertakings.

The Disc

Fitting snugly onto a single disc (the total running time just edges past the two-and-a-half hours mark), Regarde la mer and other short films presents each short as carefully as the next. Of course, differing film stocks are going to have an effect, as are respective budgets and age, but on the whole the overall package is very pleasing indeed. Original aspect ratios (ranging from 1.33:1 to 2.35:1) are seemingly adhered to, optional English subtitles are available throughout, and no obvious flaws outside of those inherent in the original material stand out. Anamorphic enhancement is also present on all applicable films and soundtracks (DD2.0 in all cases) fare much the same as the picture quality, ie any problems coming from the originals and not the disc itself. Extras, however, are limited to a 24-page booklet containing various articles plus biography, filmography and credits for all seven titles. Disappointment abounds slightly as previous French DVD editions of Ozon’s work (where some of these shorts appeared amongst the special features) have featured director’s commentaries. I’m not currently aware as to whether these discs also offering accompanying subtitles, but their English-friendly inclusion here would no doubt have been welcome.

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