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Research Proposal

 

Representations of sexuality in the films of François Ozon

François Ozon is a young, prolific, gay French director, but as yet very little critical work has been done on him. Ozon hides subversive gender behaviour behind a seemingly banal surface: this is what my project sets out to uncover. While 8 Femmes (2002) and Swimming Pool (2003) were commercially successful, there are profound issues at stake, illustrating the merging of mainstream and arthouse cinema. Ozon investigates the dynamics of heterosexual and homosexual love and plays with our expectations, choosing odd couplings to suggest that conventional sexual identities no longer have any anchorage. Ozon asks the viewer what acceptable behaviour is; his films question the place of incest, murder, food, and desire in our society. Ozon is also fascinated with artifice and theatricality; he employs conventional forms to ask new questions about the shifting nature of gender identity and to underline the notion of gender as performance.

My methodology in analysing Ozon’s films will draw on a variety of approaches, from psychoanalytic readings, to feminist, queer, and body theory. I am influenced by theorists Moi and Felman who question dominant ideologies of sex and gender; they argue a move away from simplistic gender binaries such as male/female and hetero/homosexual. Moi and Felman, among others, argue that an understanding of sexuality should incorporate other aspects of individual subjectivities, looking at class, race, and age alongside gender. Hughes and Williams are a case in point; in their ‘Introduction’ to Gender and French Cinema, they claim that ‘gender as a path of enquiry only makes proper critical sense when associated with questions of race, ethnicity and history’.[1] My project will aim to keep in mind this broader understanding of sexuality, by looking at works such as Chris Straayer’s Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies, and Ellis Hanson’s edition Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film.[2]

My interest in queer theory could prove problematic; theorists are hesitant to define what it stands for and what it represents. Annamarie Jagose, in Queer Theory: An introduction, provides an example of this reluctance; she says that ‘to attempt an overview of queer theory and to identify it as a significant school of thought […] is to risk domesticating it, and fixing it in ways that queer theory resists fixing itself’.[3] Jagose, along with other queer theorists, is anxious to keep the term fluid and open, but is not afraid to recognise its shortcomings. However, I must have a working definition of the term in order to employ queer theory in my project. Benshoff and Griffin, in their edition Queer Cinema: The Film Reader, give a concise definition: they argue simply that queer theory is a way to rethink human sexuality. They claim that queer theory in particular ‘allows us to examine both straight and non-straight sexualities, in order to decontruct the ways and means that patriarchal hegemony constructs and maintains the idea that only one sexuality (married-straight-white-man-on-top-of-woman-sex-for-procreation-only) is normal and desirable’.[4]

My project argues that queer theory has developed views of spectatorship which surpass the more limited positions of feminist and gay/lesbian theory, particularly by crediting the film viewer with an ability to operate fluid identificatory processes, as expounded by Carol J. Clover, for example. Alexander Doty points out in the Oxford Guide to Film Studies that ‘viewers, no matter what their stated gender and sexuality identities, often position themselves “queerly” – that is, position themselves within gender and sexuality spaces other than those with which they publicly identify’.[5] I will also enter a debate mentioned by Doty, questioning whether ‘expressing and representing queerness […] is most (or only) possible within non-mainstream production and formal contexts, that is within avant-garde, documentary, and other independently produced alternative-to-traditional narrative forms’ (p. 149). This issue is most germane to my analysis of Ozon and his shift from budget to mainstream cinema. The first chapter of my project will set out this critical framework in more detail, drawing on the recent contributions to queer theory and French cinema studies mentioned above, as well as seminal works by Judith Butler and Julia Kristeva. Ozon’s work will be put into context by referring to other queer/gay directors in European cinema, such as Almodóvar, Téchiné, Chéreau, Fassbinder, and Ozpetek. I will posit Ozon as a queer director, by identifying certain aspects of his cinematography, such as the ludic, the use of bisexual and transsexual characters, and lack of concern for ‘positive’ homosexual role models.

The next chapter looks at taboo and the abject in Ozon’s early film shorts; I investigate the female desiring subject and the ominous link she has to death and murder, particularly in Regarde la mer. The chapter takes Freud and Kristeva as reference points in order to examine why the portrayal of taboo shocks the film audience so profoundly. I examine taboos surrounding food, murder, motherhood, and childbirth. The third chapter is linked to the second by focusing on the use of genre, especially soap opera and horror in Ozon’s first feature Sitcom (1998), and the whodunnit / musical in 8 Femmes. Already it is obvious that Ozon’s work cannot be pinned down to one category alone; he plays with genre, mixing conventions from different genres in order to produce original and subversive work.

Chapter 4 will look at Ozon’s portrayal of female desire, specifically through the star persona of Charlotte Rampling, the protagonist in both Sous le sable (2000) and Swimming Pool (2003). I will engage with the debate concerning Ozon’s alleged misogyny and will analyse Ozon’s position regarding the female subject and female sexuality. Sous le sable will be analysed as an account of a woman’s grief, the denial of loss and the workings of desire. Both Swimming Pool and Sous le sable bring the crossover between fiction and reality to the fore; the ghost of the dead husband haunts scenes in Sous le sable, confusing the viewer’s understanding of the plot and undermining Marie’s point of view as a reliable narrative. The character Julie in Swimming Pool similarly rests in the grey area between fiction and reality, urging the viewer to question the status of the narrative. Again in Swimming Pool, Sarah’s (Rampling’s) role as author of novels and murder are intertwined in a portrait of artistic creation, as Ozon asks us to what lengths it is reasonable to go in order to obtain a story.

Ozon’s portrayal of homosexuality will be the focus of Chapter 5, with particular reference to Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes (2000), an adaptation of a theatre piece by Fassbinder which was never produced. Intertextuality will also be a key idea in this section, making reference to writers and directors who have influenced and informed Ozon’s work. The interplay of homosexual and heterosexual relationships, as well as the use of a transsexual actor/character in Gouttes d’eau suggests Ozon’s engagement with queer cinema, in which bisexual, androgynous and transsexual subjectivities are privileged as starting-points from which to examine the whole range of sexualities. In this feature film, Ozon questions the gender roles we fall into and the potential power a lover has to manipulate and exploit his/her partner. My project will also consider Ozon’s relation to heterosexual couplings and dynamics, given his status as a gay subject. His take on maternity, children, and the family is differently nuanced and is specific to his subjectivity.

The penultimate chapter will consider Ozon’s use of narrative form and narrative structure, by choosing examples from 5x2 (2005), recounted à rebours, and from Les Amants criminels (1999). In the DVDs of these films, Ozon provides two versions of the feature, each told from a different chronological viewpoint. Ozon comments on the effect of experimenting with the chronology and structure of Les Amants criminels in an interview concerning his DVD collection: ‘dans le nouveau montage, la violence est toujours là, mais elle est différée, donc plus recevable, à cause de la chronologie’.[6] The original cinema version, using flashbacks instead of linear chronology, was not well received and considered too violent. Ozon’s reworked version is closer to the original screenplay and prepares the audience for the violence portrayed. The intertext here is Noe’s Irréversible (2002), which also disturbs conventional time-lines. A useful reference point for analysing different narrative structures would be Gerard Genette’s work on narratology as it would reveal the various options available to Ozon and the different impact they have. In my conclusion, I shall refer to Ozon’s latest releases, as he has been making one film a year and presumably will have made more features by 2007, and I shall identify any continuities or changes of direction in his most recent productions. By the end of the thesis I will have a working understanding of the entire corpus and I aim to have highlighted what characterises Ozon’s œuvre. I will have shown in what ways Ozon proves to be an original director and how he has contributed to his generation of French, and European, filmmaking. I shall argue that Ozon, by moving from budget films to mainstream cinema, has brought issues about sexuality and gender roles to the attention of a wider public, constantly provoking his audience to reflect on and question, how what is portrayed on screen relates to our own lived experience.


[1] Hughes, Alex and Williams, James S., eds., Gender and French Cinema (Oxford: Berg, 2001), p. 8.

[2] Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), and Ellis Hanson, Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).

[3] Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 1996), p. 2.

[4] Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin, eds., Queer Cinema: The Film Reader ( New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 5-6.

[5] Alexander Doty, in John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, eds., The Oxford Guide to Film Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 148-152 (p. 151).

[6] See ‘Propos recueillis par Thierry Jousse’, http://www.francois-ozon.com/francais/ozon.entretiens08.html