Water Drops on Burning Rocks Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 2 release of Water Drops on Burning Rocks. François Ozon’s film of an early play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a comedy-drama about a bisexual romantic quadrangle, will be essential viewing for fans of either director. Artificial Eye’s DVD is up to their usual standards: excellent anamorphic picture, adequate soundtrack, basic extras.

West Germany, the 1970s. Fifty-year-old businessman Leopold (Bernard Giraudeau) invites a young student, Franz (Malik Zidi) to his flat, and seduces him. Six months pass. Franz is now Leopold’s live-in lover, and Leopold has begun to show his true domineering details. Then there arrives Franz’s ex-girlfriend Anna (Ludivine Sagnier) and one of Leopold’s past male lovers, now a woman called Vera (Anna Thomson), to complicate matters.

Water Drops on Burning Rocks (Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes) is based on an unproduced play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, written in 1964 when Fassbinder was nineteen. For fans of Fassbinder, the play is fascinating in its foreshadowing of themes from his later films. The power struggle between young and old gay lovers looks forward to Fox and His Friends and, in a lesbian version, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. The character list – two bisexual men, a male-to-female transsexual and a straight woman – sounds like the set-up of a more serious-minded Almódovar film, which underlines the latter’s debt to Fassbinder and through him to the Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk.

Ozon’s film is defiantly theatrical. There’s only one set, Leopold’s apartment, and a cast of four, with the two women only appearing halfway through. The film has captions dividing it into four acts. It’s a tribute to Ozon’s direction that the film holds the interest as well as it does. Giraudeau and Zidi have the most demanding roles and turn in excellent performances. There’s a scene early on where Leopold asks Franz if he looks physically younger than fifty: just watch his expression shift from insecurity to vanity to lust in a few seconds. Anna Thomson plays Vera with just the right edge of theatricality: you sense that she’s someone acting the role of a woman rather than simply being one. She has some touching moments towards the end of the film as she relates how she had the sex change in a vain attempt to keep the fickle Leopold’s interest. Given the character list above and Fassbinder’s sensibilities, it’s perhaps not surprising that the straight woman comes off worst, a combination of an underwritten character and Ludivine Sagnier’s at times gauche performance. (She spends virtually all her screen time either nude or in blue underwear.)

Although the dialogue is in French, there are some German-language songs played on the soundtrack, notably Françoise Hardy’s “Träume”, which are not subtitled. This was due to a misunderstanding between the sales company and Artificial Eye, as Ozon had requested that these not be subtitled for the film’s premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. So, unfortunately, the lines from Heinrich Heine’s poem “Lorelei” which Franz recites are not rendered into English. So for those, like me, whose German is not up to the task, here is Felix Pollack’s translation (courtesy of Artificial Eye’s magazine enthusiasm, issue 3):

I don’t know the reason why
I should be feeling so sad;
A tale of times gone by
Keeps running through my head.

The air is cool, day is sinking
And quiet flows the Rhine;
The mountain peak is glinting
In the evening’s parting shine.

Artificial Eye’s DVD has an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 16:9. This seems to be correctly framed, so presumably the film was shown in 1.75:1 in cinemas. As you might expect from this distributor, the transfer is pretty much flawless. Water Drops…is not the most colourful of films (it’s only due to the production design and costumes that we know it’s set in the 1970s), but those colours are accurately rendered. The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 with no surround, as is usual for an Artificial Eye disc. For this film that hardly matters, as it’s very much dialogue-led, and I have no complaints about the clarity of the dialogue. Only rainfall in one scene and some music give much in the way of left-right separation. I will note for the record that the film had Dolby Digital and DTS mixes for cinema release.

The main and extras menus use clips from the film, but unfortunately suffer from some noticeable pixelation. The extras comprise a very short (1:05) trailer in non-anamorphic 1.66:1, rolling-text filmographies for both Ozon and Fassbinder and Ozon’s production notes (which go forward automatically, though you can navigate back and forth if you wish). There are seventeen chapter stops.

For admirers of Fassbinder and also the up-and-coming Ozon, this film will be essential viewing, and Artificial Eye’s DVD pretty much covers all the expected bases.


Updated: Jul 14, 2001

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