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'Water Drops on Burning Rocks'

'Water' breaks ground as cynical tragedy

Saturday, April 21, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A few films ago, we had occasion to use -- and attack -- the term "black comedy." Today we have the paradoxical occasion to coin a new term: "black tragedy."

"Water Drops on Burning Rocks"

STARRING: Bernard Giraudeau, Malik Zidi, Ludivine Sagnier, Anna Thompson.

DIRECTOR: Francois Ozon.

RATED: Unrated but R in nature for sex and nudity.



`If the term originates here, the genre originated in an unproduced play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder from which "Water Drops on Burning Rocks" was adapted. Fassbinder was a teen-ager of 19 when he wrote it, but in no way can it be characterized as a work of "juvenilia." To the contrary, it's a highly polished adult exploration of the sexual dynamics among a middle-aged insurance salesman, the beautiful boy he picks up, and their feminine ex-lovers -- one a surgically altered male named Vera (Anna Thompson), the other a bona fide buxom blonde named Anna (Ludivine Sagnier).

We've got a French film by a French director in the French language, but don't let that Franco fool you: It's Fassbinder territory, and the mise en scene is Deutschland in the 1970s, although you'd never know it from the exterior shots because there's not a single one in the movie. It is set entirely inside the apartment of salesman Leopold (Bernard Giraudeau), who looks like a more dissipated Dirk Bo-garde (who always looked pretty dissipated to begin with).

It opens with his nervous arrival there in the company of red-headed Franz (Malik Zidi), the "artistic" teen-ager he has just picked up. Smug Leopold asks the boy to guess his age and is annoyed when Franz correctly pegs it at 50 -- and more annoyed when Franz tries to bail out of having sex on the grounds of his (ambivalent) intention to take up with Anna again. But Leo is a master in more ways than one, biding his time and his approach to the seduction, accomplishing it by the end of Act 1.

Retaining that structural device from the theater, writer-director Francois Ozon divides the film -- and perverse sexual games of its players -- into four acts. In Act 2, having conquered and domesticated Franz (who now lives with him and wears lederhosen around the apartment), Leopold turns increasingly mean, demanding and tyrannical. The ecstatic novelty of Franz (and dominating him) has worn off and given way to boredom, in turn giving way to abuse. Poor Franz, wounded and robbed of his identity, cries when Leo's home and when he's away on the road.

Enter Anna, during one of the latter intervals, surfacing to reclaim Franz and complicate matters in Act 3. Ditto in Act 4 with Vera, Leo's old girlfriend -- formerly boyfriend -- whose operation in Casablanca turned homosexual him into transsexual her.

A dissonant quartet indeed, these four, playing every dominant note in the key of Leo and destined to trade major for minor mode before the music's over.

Yet periodically, just when you get close to overdosing on lugubriousness, Ozon gives you some macabre little humorous intermezzo -- like the synchronized samba our quartet inexplicably breaks into at one point -- as a temporary reprieve.

This innovative director has explored such other shadowy realms as incest and sadomasochism. Homosexuality itself? Too acceptably mainstream nowadays to rate -- and never even introduced here -- as an issue.

Ozon and his "Drops on Rocks" are fascinating, fascinated heirs of Fassbinder's two dozen pessimistic film delvings into the kinky, dangerous connections between sex and power -- with only black-tragic irony to hold despair at bay.

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