If you like what you see think again

It is easy to dislike a Francois Ozon film. The man likes his clichés; the consumable body, face, even temperament, is always there. The cute score and cinematography. The desirable dark handsome male. There is a reason why the conservatism in 8 Women (2002) is something one almost eggs on when by the tenth watch: the greater the pressure, the constriction, the propriety, the more beautiful and wild the oncoming eruption. The tighter the bun and the apron, the more sensuality is built in their undoing. Would Catherine Deneuve’s trophy wife really have lost it quite so, that is lying on her carpet with her sister in law on top of her, and enjoying every second, if she had not held herself to such high standards up until that very moment?

So in the context of 8 Women I forgive Francois’s choice on fixating on the most uninteresting aspect of a bit of a boring topic: the surface of the French bourgeoisie; the coiffes and clothing of the people and their values.

The contrast between a manicured setting and the ugly prejudices that keep the status quo alive – takefor instance, the ostracized sister-in-law on the basis of her profession, is what really brings the ugly prejudices to the fore.

Looks become a process in the most basic and cathartic of sense: you may not see the process behind Isabelle Hupert’s single female intellectual’s transformation, but you know the basis: a desire to be taken and therefore treated as what you feel inside of yourself, and not another’s limiting perception of you. So far so good. The ugly head rises when the look in question is the conventional, feminine aesthetic: why could the unmarried aunt simply not own her grating edge and heavy framed glasses?

Well, it would not be an Ozon film if the bitter medicine was not administered using a lot of sweetness. It’s that simple. We the audience, are children that need to swallow a bit of an unpleasantness for our own wellbeing. And what is sweeter than something either easy to like or that we like already? 8 Women may not have been made in the 50s for 50s women; but the era’s glamour still has it, like an aged but well-conserved forty-something.

Hence I also forgive him, and therefore take the unpopular opinion, on the count of Jeune et Jolie (2013), and its politically incorrect voyeuristic curiosity in the sexual escapades of young – excuse me, underage – woman of a beauty exuding the perfect dosage of palatability, excellence and disconcertion.

Jeune et Jolie can only be trite if read as an exploration of prostitution, the practice’s place and value in Western society and, in particular, in the morality of Western women and men. Especially women.  In Ozon’s social view, ‘It’s a fantasy of many women to do prostitution’ (Richford, 2015).  So maybe the film really is about exploring the appeal of prostitution and can be reduced to nothing but a time and space-sucking cliché. The world does not need yet another Peeping Tom piece of media with no other achievement than the thorough objectification of woman.

But as any good director, Ozon is a step ahead of you. Just enough to make you take a double-take. What is that gap, one might ask. The recurring theme of transgression. The ugly impropriety of human impulse; a mother’s affair, a little brother caught masturbating. But all in a very beautiful, Parisian décor, naturellement. The juxtaposition of the beautiful and improper sheds clarity as beautiful as daylight, as Ms Deneuve so famously demonstrated (had Belle de Jour been a reportage it might have garnered its subject notoriety in place of acclaim). What if Ozon had chosen to set his piece in the messier daily life of the Cité? What would our minds, hearts, loins, whatever, have latched onto then?

Even if we do subscribe to the view that the film is about what it depicts, prostitution, and we subsequently go about digging into it, we’ll find quickly that no, it is not about prostitution and its moral pitfalls – though the depiction of the heroine’s trauma as probably strongly coloured by grieving a human bond following the death of her octogenarian client is a much appreciated subtlety. To be young and beautiful is not, shockingly, everything.

Jeune et Jolie is about sex and its perpetual policing even in these oh-so-modern times. Pure and beautiful. Faced with all these rules, unspoken, hence as loud and clear as they could be, how could a young woman not become fascinated with exploring a deviant sexuality? And how could she be expected to actually find pleasure in the set path? After all, try she did. Midnight on a deserted Cote-D’Azur beach – check. Two perfect, young bodies – check. You can even push it and demand matching social backgrounds and future life prospects – check.

Feigned liberalism and very-real constricting structure. That is the moral chimera Ozon is really contending with. The eight women did not make any pretence of liberal thinking. Our times can boast two snakes as the lion’s tail. But we his audience, so concerned with being proper, perhaps not knowing how to be anything else unless under the influence, miss this reality entirely. It’s almost a comical extension of the film itself.

The comedy is stretched to its limits in Ozon’s latest offering – The New Girlfriend (2015), where the sugar- coated medicine of bourgeois social barb tastes more like a lemon sherbet than a candy-coloured, velvety macaron. Here too, seemingly inoffensive femininity, even and perhaps especially in its new androgynous influences in the straight lines and sharp edges of its heroine’s wardrobe, is juxtaposed with her transphobic value-system.

Will Francois Ozon ever give us a literal depiction of the ugliness of modern-day bourgeoisie? That would take the art away from his point. And why just say something, when you can whisper it mischievously? That is sometimes beauty and it is always art.

 

Bibliography

Richford, R. (2015). Cannes: Francois Ozon Says ‘It’s a Fantasy of Many Women to Do Prostitution’ (Q&A). [online] The Hollywood Reporter. Availaible at: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/cannes-francois-ozon-says-a525566 [Accessed 30 Dec. 2015]

 

Essay by Bruna Mondlane