The French director Francois Ozon is both a mischievous enfant terrible and a capable and cool-headed strategist who knows how to get what he wants. Though he has always flirted with controversial topics, the 35-year-old filmmaker has nevertheless reached the mainstream in France. He has turned out six feature films in as many years -- thanks to his own relentless drive.
"Francois has a great freedom of spirit," says novelist Emmanuele Bernheim, who has collaborated on two of his screenplays. "You never know what he's going to do next."
Ozon's films range from the over-the-top and sexually provocative ("Sitcom") to the sober and meditative ("Under the Sand"). He broke into the international big time last year with "8 Women," a campy musical whodunit that was a smash hit in France and played in more than 50 countries worldwide.
True to form, Ozon's new film, "Swimming Pool," which opens here Wednesday, marks a new direction for him. For one thing, the film, which stars British actress Charlotte Rampling and French rising star Ludivine Sagnier, is shot mostly in English.
For another, "Swimming Pool" is Ozon's first attempt to deal explicitly with the process of artistic creation -- and, as such, is intensely personal. Rampling plays a British mystery writer, caught in professional and personal doldrums, who decides to go away for a change of scene to her editor's vacation home in the South of France.
At first, she has the house to herself, but then the editor's licentious and alluring young daughter (Sagnier) arrives. After initial hostilities, the girl becomes an unpredictable -- and dangerous -- muse for the older woman.
Ozon's desire to make a smaller scale drama was the result of his stressful experience shooting "8 Women," with its galaxy of celebrated -- and temperamental -- French actresses (among them Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Beart).
"There were a lot of egos involved," Ozon said diplomatically last month at the Cannes Film Festival, where "Swimming Pool" played in competition. "After '8 Women,' I wanted to do something more intimate, more personal, and to find myself among family again. Charlotte and Ludivine are very dear friends of mine. I've worked with both of them before, and I wrote these roles with them in mind."
Sitting on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, Ozon was warm and boyishly preppy even on only two hours of sleep (his film's party was the night before). He seems far sunnier in person than his darkly psychological films would indicate. But he has a sharply malicious wit and an acute intelligence that he uses both to pierce other people's armor and to shield his own.
"The French press can be very aggressive and jealous," he said, trying to explain his apprehensiveness about how "Swimming Pool" would be received in France post-"8 Women." ("Swimming Pool" got varied notices but opened at No. 2 at the box office.) "In France, people resent other people's success, and they have this idea that the artist must suffer to create." He laughed. "It irritates people that I give the impression of being happy."
In fact, questions about his inner life were partly responsible for the theme of "Swimming Pool." "I was tired of journalists always asking me, 'Where does your inspiration come from?' " he said. "I wanted to tell of my way of working and my process of creation. I had the idea of telling this through the character of an English writer, where I could talk about something very intimate, while still hiding myself."
He conceived of Sarah Morton (Rampling) as a writer of thrillers in the vein of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell, women who have always fascinated him because, as he said, "they often look so different from what they write." It amused him to set up a cultural opposition between a buttoned-down Brit and a French sex kitten. "I wanted to start with two cliches and then find out what really lies behind the masks."
When Julie arrives at the villa, with her tiny bikinis and wedge heels, she irritates Sarah by her unwelcome presence and her habit of bringing home a different swain every night. Slowly, however, Sarah is inspired by Julie's flamboyance and starts to write a new kind of novel. When Julie realizes this, she begins enacting scenarios that she thinks would be intriguing to Sarah. The two embark on a perilous tango in which the boundaries between fact and fiction blur and reality itself becomes a thriller.
Asked how Sarah Morton is autobiographical, Ozon smiled. "She's similar to me in her obsessive way of working," he said. "But I also think that the relation between Sarah and Julie is similar to the exchange I have with my actors, where things are given but also stolen."
During an interview at Cannes, Rampling called her close collaboration with Ozon an "osmosis." The 57-year-old actress owes her career's renaissance in great part to Ozon's acclaimed 2001 film "Under the Sand," in which she played a woman coming to terms with personal tragedy.
"Each time I've worked with Francois we've started out with only an idea of the film," the actress explained, her gray eyes hooded by sunglasses against the sunlit glare. "And then he goes off and writes, and I see him very regularly while he's writing. We don't even have to talk much about the role, but he tailors it to me like haute couture."
The alluring look of "Swimming Pool" -- all sunlight, dappled water and tanned flesh -- is meant to reflect, according to Ozon, the openness and sensuality of the process of writing. And yet the link between Sarah Morton and her muse goes beyond physical attraction.
"When Charlotte looks at Ludivine, I want us to ask, 'Does she desire her? Is she jealous? Or is she maternal?' " Ozon said.
To play Julie, Sagnier went through a physical transformation, putting on blond hair extensions and losing 20 pounds. "My love of acting has always come from my pleasure in disguising myself," the pixieish actress said. At 23, she has already worked three times with Ozon and is a veteran of his directing technique. "On set, Francois establishes the visual parameters of a scene rather than discussing psychological motivation," she explained. "Instead of suggesting emotions, he wants to capture the emotions that emanate from us."
In all of his films, Ozon has shown a particular affinity for women.
"I'm more interested in filming them," he acknowledged. "I think female characters are often more complex. But I think it's also easier because there is a distance." He laughed. "I would have a lot of trouble doing a film on a 35-year-old French director."
Ozon has been making movies ever since he acquired a Super-8 camera as a teenager. He grew up in Paris, the eldest son of a university biology professor and a high school French teacher.
By his own account, he was quite a handful. "I was a very agitated child, very rebellious, and I had to be disciplined at school," he said. "Then, when I was in my teens, I became quite introverted. I only felt liberated when I started to make movies."
He got a degree in arts and film at the University of Paris and then attended the prestigious Parisian film school called the Femis. In 1998 he made his first feature, "Sitcom," a savage sexual satire about the diabolical influence that a pet rat has on a typical bourgeois family.
Ozon's second and third features, "Criminal Lovers" and "Water Drops on Burning Rocks," also delved into controversial topics. "Criminal Lovers" is a dark fable about two teenagers who kill a fellow student, while "Water Drops," which is adapted from an early Rainer Werner Fassbinder play, is a caustic depiction of sexual brinksmanship among four characters.
Not surprisingly, Ozon enjoys the mantle of provocateur. "It's exciting to take on subjects that society forbids," he said. "But I'm also just being playful with the audience." He laughed. "My religious upbringing gave me a taste for sin."
With "Under the Sand," however, he changed course, crafting a serious and sympathetic portrait of a woman trying to cope with the disappearance of her husband. When the film was released in France in 2001, Ozon was hailed by critics as a major-league director.
He says that he so much enjoyed working with Rampling that he decided that his next film would star only actresses. He initially wanted to do a remake of George Cukor's "The Women," but the rights were not available. Then he heard of an obscure 1960s French play called "8 Women" and dug it up. "I liked the plot," he said. "Eight women are holed up in a house, a man is killed, and it must be one of the eight. I said, 'This can be funny and glamorous as well.' " He adapted the play and then sent it out to a dream cast of actresses.
To his amazement, they all said yes. "Luckily, it happened very fast," he said. "Otherwise, they would have had time to think better of it."
"8 Women" became the second most popular French film in France last year (after the comedy "Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra"). Ozon wants to continue to reach a large audience with his films. "The directors that I admire, like Hitchcock, are the ones who embrace their public," he said.
But don't expect him to stop making provocative films. "It's important for me to do something different each time, and to keep the audience active and off-guard," he said.
So he is pleased that the ending of "Swimming Pool," which has a surprise twist, has elicited debate. "I wanted to make an interactive film, where each spectator, by the end, writes his own version of Sarah Morton's novel," he said.
He smiled. "It makes me very happy if there are interpretations that I haven't thought of, because there should be as many versions of this story as there are people in the audience."