It’s been a long time since François Ozon, whose latest film “Potiche” opens this weekend, made his first few short films. And this lavish new picture at first seems a far cry from his early work. It’s a refined retro comedy, with some very campy laughs and an appealing message about family dynamics and the role of women in the workplace. Its lush ‘70s aesthetics and leading team of megastars Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu don’t seem to have much in common with the Super 8 shorts of the late ‘80s, starring the young director’s family and friends. But there’s a sense of humor and a delightful penchant for camp that runs all the way through the 20-plus years of Ozon’s oeuvre, and has brought an odd but entirely welcome appeal to the screen throughout his career.
Given his success as a director of feature length films, notably “8 Women” and “Swimming Pool," it’s easy to forget his extensive experience with shorts. Ozon has directed eighteen, almost all which were made before the debut of his first feature in 1998. Some of these, like 1996’s “A Summer Dress” should really be considered modern classics of the form. Lucky for us, two shorts are available to watch online, both silent Super 8s from his first year of filmmaking: 1988’s “Un photo de famille” and “Les doigts dans le ventre.” Before heading out to see “Potiche” this weekend (which is definitely a good idea; it’s quite funny, and the screen-reunion of Deneuve and Depardieu was worth the wait), take 20 minutes and give these a look.
The first of these, “Un photo de famille” ironically begins with a shot of Depardieu in a black-and-white film; one wonders if the young Ozon had any idea some day he would direct the ubiquitous and monumental actor in a film of his own. But I digress. The camera turns to a family, watching this classic movie (which I can’t identify; does anyone recognize it?), before they eat a nice and mundane dinner. The actors are the director’s parents and siblings, helping him kick his career off to a unique start.
And then it gets a bit strange, and actually quite dark. Yet while this turn to the morbid is unsettling and somewhat disturbing, it also has its own understated camp and comic appeal. It’s only 6 minutes long, so I won’t ruin it; give it a watch below.
The strange blend of humor and chills that arise from the violence comes from the very specific aesthetics of the short. It’s very simple, but at the same time the details seem almost deliberately stylized (the son’s hair, the little espresso cups), and the deadpan way with which it is both acted and filmed saps the terror from the narrative, replacing it with a morbid wit. This same matter-of-fact manner is the guiding virtue of the second short as well, which exchanges family dysfunction for bulimia.
“Les doigts dans le ventre,” which translates as “Fingers in the Belly”, follows a teenage girl as she eats through her day. She begins with a pastry, moves to an enormous tray of burgers and fries. She steals cookies from the supermarket and is given cans of beans and ham from a friend, tossing it all back with a sort of unassuming gusto. It just happens before your eyes, without much fanfare; it has the same vérité-esque style of “Un photo de famille,” and here as well a family is playing themselves. Watch it:
There’s the same simultaneity of humor and repulsion that characterized the violence of the first short, here evoked in the more ridiculous moments of our protagonist’s mad pursuit of processed foods. You can’t help but laugh through your mild horror as you watch he tear open a can of beans or tuck a box of cookies into her jacket. Yet it doesn’t necessarily trivialize the girl’s illness. Because the humor derives from the deadpan nature of the portrayal, and doesn’t actually attempt to minimize or hide the ugliness of the problem (most notably in the moment of vomiting into the toilet before dinner), it lends a certain cinematic and exaggerated reality to the story.
Moreover, there are moments of very touching honesty and meditation. The friend strokes our protagonist’s belly as she stops by to hand off the canned food, Ozon giving us in the audience a poignant few seconds to breathe. There is also a wonderful shot later on as the girl ponders her day, rubbing her stomach as she lies on the floor beneath a carefully placed Renoir poster. This is not just a dark comedy, but a look into the emotional reality of its subject. Much as the prior film uses a combination of violence and subtle wit to poke fun at the awkwardness of a family dynamic, “Les doigts dans le ventre” explores the realities of bulimia without avoiding the potential absurdities that can arise from it.
The same frank mania that is such an important part of these characters and their actions is also very much present in “Potiche,” although the content of the plot is a tad more restrained. When the wife of a factory owner (Deneuve) compares herself to Marie-Antoinette trapped in the Tuileries, as her husband’s workers are striking outside, she’s not being ironic. You laugh because she’s entirely unaware of the ludicrousness of her attitude and her situation, as if she had just inhaled three cheeseburgers. It’s more refined, in a way, than the blunt and disturbing character of these Super 8 experiments, but you can tell it’s the work of Ozon.
In a way his career arc is quite similar to the older Pedro Almodóvar, who also started as a sort of enfant terrible of the Super 8 and over the years graduated to feature films with more vibrant camp aesthetics but subtler storylines. And like Almodóvar, his early work is under-appreciated. Shall we change that?
Bonus: Here’s a clip from the (sadly no longer on Youtube in full) “A Summer Dress,” just to pique your interest. Sorry if you don't speak French, but it's pretty easy to get the gist. It’s a great film, track it down.