When I meet Francois Ozon at the Mercer Hotel he’s wrapped in a scarf, sipping coffee with a wry grin. The smile speaks to the tone of the French filmmaker’s work: notoriously sneaky and playful, twisting our suspense into curlicues as if it were silly putty. Ozon––who is almost as prolific as Almodovar or Fassbinder, and with whom he shares a certain sensibility––is in New York to promote his latest psychological thriller, the delicious In The House. The film follows a jaded high-school teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) awakened from his professional stupor by a talented, if disturbed, student, Claude (Ernst Umhauer). When Claude starts writing stories about another classmate’s “perfect” family, Germain takes him under his wing––and the lines between reality and fiction, right and wrong, reader and writer, all start to blur. It’s an ingenious if vertiginous ride, upping the ante at every turn. And as with Ozon’s similarly Hitchockian thriller, Swimming Pool, In The House leaves the viewer in a state of giddy disorientation. Here, the Parisian director discusses everything from his interest in Freudian pathology to his debt to the Master of Suspense—and why the French don’t like open endings.
Why do you often choose writers as main characters?
Because if I were to just show a director, I’d have the feeling that I was naked. The writer alone with the blank page––it’s similar to what I go through but it’s also easier for me to film.
Is In The House partly autobiographical?
I think so, yes. In a certain way. Not totally. When I discovered the play by Juan Mayorga, I thought it would be a great way to also talk about my own process of working. How do you tell a story? What are your different options? What is the path you decide on?
The film is very much about the fine line between art and life. This seems to run throughout your work. Do you sometimes feel you’re more loyal to your art than to real life?In a way I’m also close to François Truffaut who said that life in movies is better than life in reality. And like Truffaut, art is very important for me. Without art life would be very difficult to tolerate. That’s why I wanted to have this melancholic happy ending in the film. These two characters who need each other––who are not able to live in reality and prefer to live in fiction. I think many people are like that. I know I’m like that.
A lot of your films focus on psychotic behavior. Have you studied psychoanalysis? Have you read the work of Freud or Lacan?
Yes, of course. I read many of those books when I was a student. I love to read books about neurotic or psychotic people. There are often really good ideas for movies in them. And I also recognize myself in their behavior sometimes. I don’t think I’m psychotic; but neurotic, yes. I’m sure I’m neurotic. So there’s a part of me that’s always interested in the strange way people behave. When I did a film like Under the Sand it was important to understand how a woman could live with a ghost. And in the case of this film it’s the same thing. I wanted to the audience to be involved in the fantasies and mental realities of the characters.
You have a lot of fun twisting around Oedipal relations––exploring every possible perversion family is possible of.
This comes from my own observations and my own reality. My interest in family of course comes from observing my own family. I like to play with those kinds of relationships in my work. But I think with age my view on family is changing. With In The House, the first part of the film is very ironic and cynical about the so-called perfect family. But step by step, as my character follows the lesson of his teacher, he learns to love the family––and of course, he actually falls in love with the housewife. But there’s a love there.
You’re never quite sure if the film is a thriller or a comedy. It’s both serious and not-serious.
For me it was important to begin with a clear distinction between what is reality and fiction. But step by step I wanted to mix the two. So the idea is that it’s up to the audience to decide if it’s true or fake. So it’s up to the audience to decide.
The film makes several direct references to Hitchcock. You’re clearly a fan.
It was impossible with such a subject not to have references to Hitchcock. He’s the best story-teller of the cinema. He was the first one to have a theory of suspense, how you deal with the place of the spectator. In a sense my character is getting trained in how to tell a story the way Hitchcock would.
And of course the last shot of the film––when we see the rear view of an entire apartment building.
When I was shooting in front of that building I know everyone would think of Rear Window. But my idea was more to reference the contemporary art-world, the world of installation art. In a way, my characters have finally come to appreciate modern art.
Do you get a kick of manipulating the guilty pleasure of the audience? It’s very much like Hitchcock.
Hitchcock assumes every director is a manipulator of voyeur. And very often so is the audience. We are all voyeurs when we go to the cinema. Don you think it’s strange we enjoy so much to go into a dark room and watch on a big screen murders and sex scenes? We’re all voyeurs in this way. Maybe it helps us not become murderers or rapists ourselves. I think that’s part of the cinema. So as a director I very consciously assume that I’m there to manipulate and spy on people.
Do you hang out a lot with other filmmakers?
Not so much. I love to see the films of other directors, but I don’t have so many friends.
After the success you had in America with Swimming Pool, I presume you could have worked in Hollywood.
Yes, I had many propositions. But it’s funny, because the film was more successful in American than in France. In France I think people didn’t really like the film. It was mixed, the reviews were mixed. And in American it was very surprising for us, how well it did.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. Maybe because it was sexy.
Ludivine Sagnier in a bikini certainly didn’t hurt.
[Laughs] But I don’t know… I think the film was not rational enough for the French. The French like everything to make sense. I think Americans like it when you don’t know what’s fiction and what’s reality.
But the open-ending made the film.
Yes. But in France we don’t really like that. It’s rationalist culture.