There's a lot that feels familiar in François Ozon's Double Lover, the wicked and wacky story of a woman (Marine Vacth) who realizes that there's more to her new therapist boyfriend (Jérémie Renier) than meets the eye. The French writer-director returns to his usual terrain with this erotically charged drama that's tinged with more than a hint of mystery and thrill. And yet, the characters' traipse through a story full of dual identities and split personalities maintains a transgressive edge that's rare for a filmmaker operating well within his comfort zone. I spoke with Ozon earlier this year about finding fresh ways to approach the genre before our discussion eventually turned to French cinema in general.
Were you intentionally looking to return to more traditionally and erotically charged material with Frantz?
It's true that Frantz is a more classical film. There's no sex scene in the film, except a small kiss at the end, so I wanted to go back and do something more sexual. I had in mind the adaptation of the book by Joyce Carol Oates for a long time, because I had read it five years ago, but the rights were not free at the time. My producer told me the rights became free, so it was a good opportunity after Frantz to make this film.
Did the more reserved style of making a film like Frantz change the way you approached Double Lover?
Each time, the important thing is the story. I want to tell the best story. For Double Lover, because it's a film about the subconscious, and you are in the head of this girl, I had the feeling I could be more free to visually try many things and go in different directions.
This is the second time you've worked with Marine Vacth. What strikes you about her as an actress?
It's obvious, no?
I'd be curious to hear it in your words!
She's very strong on screen. She has what Americans call “star quality.” She's beautiful, clever, and—it's funny, when I met her for Young and Beautiful, she was not sure if she wanted to be an actress. She'd had many jobs and bad experiences before, and she wasn't sure. I think she took a lot of pleasure from making my movie. And it was successful in France! Now, I knew she was an actress. When I began to search for the actress for Double Lover, I didn't have her in mind because, for me, she was still the young teenager from Young and Beautiful. But she was now a mother and had changed a lot, as I realized later. I went to her and said, “Do you want to make another film with me?” I was a bit nervous because this is a film with a lot of nudity and sex scenes. But she loved the story and realized it was a good opportunity for her to show another side of her skill. So, we had a lot of fun. Young and Beautiful was more like a documentary about Marine Vacth and she didn't have control over her way of acting. For this film, it was really a composition, because the character was so far away from her, so she had to work differently to show something new.
And she's so much more of a blank slate in Young and Beautiful, really more of the object of the audience's gaze. Whereas here, she has so much more agency in her own right.
Yes, the way of directing her was different because the character was so different. In Young and Beautiful, she just had to be present. It was a film about a secret where I didn't give the keys of the psychology of the character. She had to stay mysterious, so it was perfect for her. It's a real quality to have a secret on screen because some people are just boring, and you don't want to know them or what's inside them. For Marine, it's the opposite. You want to know. This film is about a secret, but the character doesn't know it. At the end, she will discover what she has inside. It's a film about her interiority. That's why there's a very important shot at the beginning of the film where we're inside her vagina. It's a way with two shots with the eye and the vagina [the latter dissolves into the former in the opening scene of Double Lover] to explain what would be the subject of the film.
You've mentioned trying to make a movie with Jérémie Renier every 10 years—are you aiming for a Truffaut/Leaud pairing?
I'm less autobiographical than Truffaut in my movies, lucky for me! It's true, I love Jérémie, he's a very good friend, and we always have a lot fun working together. The first time was on Criminal Lovers, when he was 17. At the time, it was his second movie. The first was the one he made with the Dardennes, La Promesse, and after that, he wasn't sure if he wanted to be an actor because he didn't like the experience. He was too young to understand he was working with real geniuses because they are great directors. I think he had a lot of fun playing with me on Criminal Lovers, and we like to work together, so it's always a pleasure to work again with him. For this part, he wasn't my first choice, actually. The first choice was a very famous French actor who loved the script, but working on the preparation, I changed some things. I put in the scene with the dildo, and when he read that he said, “I didn't sign for that. You cut this scene, or I don't do your movie.” And I said, “Okay, you don't do my movie.” Then I went to Jérémie, who is afraid of nothing.
I would never have thought that scene wasn't there from the beginning since it feels so crucial for the characters and their relationship.
For me, the process of writing doesn't finish until shooting. I change things, I move some scenes, I cut some dialogue.
Double Lover is based on an American story. Did you have to do much work to strip it of any of our prudish attitudes toward sexuality?
There was an American adaptation of the book for television [1991's Lies of the Twins]. I don't think many people know that, maybe I shouldn't tell it. It was for television with Isabella Rossellini and Aidan Quinn. The TV show is terrible. You can see it on YouTube, it's very funny but not good. But it's very American.
When you were promoting Frantz, you mentioned having been concerned about Joyce Carol Oates not recognizing her novel in the film, given how many things you changed, and hoping that she didn't feel you betrayed her spirit. Do you feel that it turned out that way?
She has seen the film and tweeted nice things about it, so I'm saved. I'm a big fan of hers, and her opinion was very important for me. But I think she was surprised by my adaptation because I changed many things, even though I think I kept her spirit.
How do you make something like therapy visually interesting and not just master shots and alternating close-ups? Is it just to shake things up and not be boring, or does it have some kind of other purpose for you?
It was a real challenge, because in the script I had 10 pages of dialogue, so I knew it could be very boring for the audience to watch 10 minutes even with beautiful actors. I had to find some ideas to show these sessions differently. I wanted to give this feeling that a psychoanalyst can have when he's listening to someone speaking all day—a floating, varying attention. When he hears something or recognizes a symbol, he's able to speak about it. I wanted to work on that because, when you watch the film again, you realize she says everything in the first 10 minutes. You have all the keys to the story. But the audience is not able to understand or hear the things like a psychoanalyst.
Does it surprise you at all that you're one of a select few French directors to enjoy pretty widespread distribution of your films in the United States?
I'm happy about that, but I'm sad for the others. I'm sad that the American market is so closed and protectionist. I just heard that Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York will be closing, and there's less and less support for European movies. I'm always a bit sad because the American cinephiles, when they think about French cinema, are still obsessed with the Nouvelle Vague. We have the feeling they didn't grew up with the new French cinema, and very often the audience for French movies are old people. It's quite sad not to see young audiences not discover French or European movies.
I've heard that you read reviews and writing about your work. Do you think we do a good job capturing what you set out to do?
It depends. I have to judge so many critics. No, I'm sad to see there is less and less place in newspapers and magazines for movies because there are so many released on the same date. Sometimes you have just four lines for a work of two years! So it's frustrating. For me, who is lucky to have made many films already, it's okay, I'm used to it. But for a young director who begins his career and carries a film for a long time, then suddenly the film is released and in two weeks, it's over, and you just have some small critics, it's very sad. For me, very often, there are some interesting reactions to my movies. With the Internet, there are some good possibilities.
Do you think American cinephiles who are obsessed with the Nouvelle Vague are hurting the way people contextualize contemporary French cinema?
French cinema is very rich and varied. I think it's too bad that Americans have focused and fixated on this period without seeing the rest because naturally, there's a lot of other interesting things in French cinema that you don't know or haven't seen. But for me, I'm a grandchild of the Nouvelle Vague. My teacher at university was Eric Rohmer, and I met Claude Chabrol very often. It's people I really admire, and I'm a big fan of their work. But time goes on, things have changed, and we're making new things.
There's a big series of erotic thrillers being programmed to coincide with the opening of Double Lover here at the Quad Cinema in New York. Do you have any personal favorites?
For me the master is Hitchcock, and in the same spirit, Brian De Palma. I think De Palma is more respected in France than in America. And someone like [Paul] Verhoeven too, with Basic Instinct, was very popular in France.
You are famously prolific. What's inspiring you these days?
I like to make movies. I know for many of my colleagues, it's suffering to make a movie. For me, there are difficult things. But at the same time, it's such a pleasure to create a world, to create a story, to work with actors, with a team which helps you to create your world. It's very exciting. If I could, I would be able to make seven films a year, but I don't have enough time.