Fortunately for Francois Ozon, his father wasn’t much of an amateur filmmaker. That’s not surprising, considering he was a professor and not in the movie business, but it was also the thing that inspired young Francois to pick up a Super 8 camera. “I didn’t think the films he made of our vacations were so great, so one day, I took the power,” laughs the director whose sixth feature, “Swimming Pool,” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
In its own way, “Swimming Pool,” which opens Friday in Los Angeles, is a sort of vacation movie. A journey to warm climes figures in the story, but the film was also a personal journey for Ozon to a more intimate place and a break with the international hype that surrounded his last film, the musical murder-mystery “8 Women,” which was popular in Europe.
Ozon says it was his experience on that picture -- which starred nearly every name actress in France, including Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Beart, Isabelle Huppert and Virginie Ledoyen -- that inspired him.
“After ‘8 Women’ I was very exposed. Everyone talked about the actresses in the movie, and I wanted to come back to something more intimate, about my way of working and about creation. In a way, I wanted to go home again. I did not want to do ‘8 Women II.’ ”
For Ozon, going home meant working with two actresses he knows well and with whom he has special rapport. Charlotte Rampling, who won rave reviews in the director’s critically acclaimed “Under the Sand,” stars as an English crime novelist seeking refuge and quiet time to write in the Provencal getaway of her editor, John (Charles Dance). Her peace is disturbed, however, with the arrival of John’s oversexed and under-loved daughter, Julie.
Ludivine Sagnier, who plays Julie and who is on her way to an international career -- she’ll be seen later this year in P.J. Hogan’s “Peter Pan” -- is also an Ozon regular, having worked with him in 2000’s “Water Drops on Burning Rocks” and “8 Women.”
For Ozon, what was a major change on this film was working almost entirely in English. The director said the experience was “fun. It was a challenge and forced me to work differently, but Charlotte helped me a lot. You do realize, though, that there are so many subtle differences [in the languages] you just wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.” As one example, he points out that the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” simply doesn’t exist in French, but it was a key phrase in the film, considering Ozon’s subject was a mystery writer working on her next book.
During lunch one day at the Cannes Film Festival, Sagnier pointed to the 36-year-old director and said, “The person sitting next to me is very demanding, but we have reached a point where we don’t really have to talk to understand each other.”
Although “Swimming Pool” left Cannes empty-handed, it will likely end up to be the most commercially successful of the French films that were in competition. It was certainly the most well-received.
Ozon says, “It was good that the film was in competition, but it’s not at Cannes that films are best showcased. There were violent reactions to the French films and yet my film opened very strongly.” “Swimming Pool” opened at No. 2 in France behind “The Matrix Reloaded,” and unlike many Cannes selections this year, the rights to his $6.5-million film had been sold throughout the world before the festival.
Awards not in the picture
Strangely, for a director who has curried much favor with critics, being passed over for awards is a familiar phenomenon for Ozon. After winning several kudos for his early short films, Ozon recently saw himself snubbed at both the Cesar and Oscar altars. “8 Women” was France’s entry for the foreign-language film Oscar but was not nominated, nor did the film win in any of the 12 categories in which it was nominated at the Cesar Awards, France’s equivalent of the Oscars (it was shut out by “The Pianist”).
Asked whether this affects him, Ozon points to a line in “Swimming Pool” in which Dance’s character dismisses the significance of awards.
He clearly has a sense of humor as well as a broader perspective. “8 Women” “was such a big success and became such a phenomenon, but it was light and pure entertainment, which is not always very well looked upon in France. I was a young director with a dream cast” and, he perceived, “there was a lot of jealousy.”
Besides, says Ozon, the French critics “are known not to be generous. When you’re a director, the true recognition comes from the public.”
And the French public is paying serious attention. After film school, Ozon honed his talents via a series of skilled short films and early features like “Sitcom” and the controversial “Criminal Lovers,” a story of two lovers who go on a killing spree after seeing Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.” Although he has shifted genres across the years, he has maintained a highly stylized manner -- lingering close-ups, vivid colors -- with central themes of intrigue and sex.
Indeed, the latter has played a large role in most of Ozon’s oeuvre. At that lunch in Cannes, a reporter asked Sagnier what was the most difficult part of playing her randy “Swimming Pool” character. She didn’t miss a beat before saying, “Well, I’m hesitating between masturbation and fellatio.” Even the middle-aged Rampling appears fully nude in the film -- in Cannes male viewers were awestruck and women cringed with envy.
He enjoys the resulting attention, but he doesn’t consider this naughty foray into English “a passport for Hollywood,” but Ozon says he is tempted to work with American actors and has a good relationship with Focus Features, which is releasing “Swimming Pool” stateside. (Although Focus and Canal Plus are owned by Vivendi Universal, Ozon has no formal relationship with either. Canal Plus contributes financing for dozens of independent films in exchange for the rights to air those movies on its premium television network in France.)
It is evident that Ozon places a high value on American-style movie aesthetics -- he cites Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock as big influences -- and he is fascinated that American actors are not cut from the same mold as Europeans. “It’s not the same tradition. In Europe we have beautiful, wonderful actresses, but in America male actors are more physically attractive than they are here.”
For the most part, Ozon just aims to please. “I am a director who really loves the audience. I don’t want to do films for three people, but I also don’t want to betray myself. I have a desire to tell stories that touch me. Hitchcock and Sirk weren’t afraid of the audience. They knew how to reconcile the audience with art.”
For the time being, Ozon is reconciled to shooting “5x2.” Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Stephane Freiss star in the story of five stages in the life of a couple. He’s shot one hour of the movie so far and will complete it by year’s end. He hasn’t settled on his next project. “The desire to do a new film only comes at the end of the last one. My future is very open, I don’t have a career plan.”
No career plan? How very French. Ozon agrees, but as success knocks, so does Hollywood. “I don’t have an agent in the States,” he laughs, “but I got a lot of phone calls in Cannes.”