February 14, 2018
In Theaters

'Double Lover': François Ozon on Why 'Sex Doesn't Lie' in Erotic Thrillers

Up close and personal with a camera and steamy plot, the three-time Palme d'Or nominee continues to push boundaries with 'Double Lover.'

Appropriately opening in theaters on Valentine’s Day, François Ozon’s Double Lover is a twistedly-crafted erotic thriller involving a young woman, her therapist boyfriend, and his brother. Former model-turned-museum attendant Chloé (Marine Vacth) has stomach troubles that no doctor has yet been able to diagnose. Thinking the issue could be more psychological than physical, she seeks therapy and meets Paul (Jérémie Renier). As they often do, one thing leads to another (and then to his brother and then, finally, to a gun). 

A leading figure in France’s new “New Wave,” Ozon's films (8 Women, Swimming Pool, Frantz) subvert classic cinematic views of sexuality and style, eliciting comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, and with his latest, Brian De Palma. Playing on genre and audience expectations, Ozon continues to push boundaries, and with Double Lover, the director explores new territory both narratively and stylistically with an aplomb that shocked audiences at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. 

As the film now opens stateside, No Film School spoke with Ozon about choosing to shoot the film in digital, the challenge of shooting sex and psychoanalysis scenes, playing on dreams and reality in an erotic thriller, and his mode of instinctive filmmaking.

No Film School: What brought you to this story? You’ve been quoted saying that you dreamt this project, an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s Lives of the Twins, in 2015. 

François Ozon: Actually, I am a big fan of Joyce Carol Oates. I read an interview in France of her saying that she has a double, who writes detective stories. So I was very interested in knowing what kind of book she was writing and I found this book signed under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith. I really enjoyed the book. I thought it would be great material for a psychosexual thriller, so I tried to obtain the rights but the rights were not available. So I forgot it, too bad. Then two years ago, my producer said the rights were available if I still wanted them. After Frantz, I wanted to go in another direction. After making a very chaste movie, I wanted to go to something more sexual and disturbing.   

NFS: With your previous films, you’ve shot both on film and in digital. For Frantz, you shot on Cinemascope. What were the advantages of shooting Double Lover in digital? 

Ozon: With Frantz, it was important to shoot on a film print because all of my references were from the beginning of the last century. For this film, I wanted something very cold, something a little bit clinical in terms of image. With my DP Manuel Dacosse, it was clear for us to shoot in digital.  

NFS: While writing the script and shooting this film, were you influenced by any films or directors in particular?

Ozon: When you do a thriller, a sexual thriller, of course, you have in mind some films by Hitchcock, some by De Palma, and this kind of tradition, but what was important for me was the fact that it was not a realistic movie. We are in the head of this girl and the unconscious. Because of this story, I had a feeling that I was totally free to push all of the limits visually and, in term of mise en scene, I had the freedom to go in many directions and try things I was not used to usually doing, like split screen, zooms, and special effects. 

François Ozon's 'Double Lover.' Courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

NFS: In a 2017 Cannes interview for Double Lover, you mentioned that ability to push further as well as being able to manipulate the audience...

Ozon: Of course! It's part of the pleasure of this kind of job. You play with the audience. You don't exactly know what is real, what is fiction, what is imagination, or what is the character's dreams, and so there's a game between the director and the audience. I play with you. It's a kind of contract. Do you want to play with me? It's about this girl and she has this secret and we try to discover what's her secret. 

NFS: There are so many levels of duality in this film—narratively and thematically with twins. There’s even the repeated use of Elvis’s As Long As I Have You, who himself was born with a twin.  

Ozon: That's something I like in my movies, to play on different levels and to have different readings. For me, it's important to be entertaining and at the same time, if you want to see something else, it's possible. It doesn't always work, but I have the feeling that for this film, it works quite well. 

NFS: Double Lover jolts the audience with a very graphic opening sequence, then lulls them through Chloé’s therapy sessions, and then amps up the energy and surreal qualities to a killer and kicker of a finish. Could you speak more on filming to capture this evolving effect? 

Ozon: My way of filming is very instinctive. I wanted to be close to her and I don't want to burden the audience. I want you to be with me, to follow the character, to ask your questions, to be active in front of the film. I don't think there is one place for the camera. There are some directors who say there is just one place to shoot the scene. I don't think so. But I try to find the right place to tell my story the best. In the case of this film, the idea was to tell visually what is not safe in words (for example, the sexual attraction between Paul and Chloé or with Louis after). All of these things aren't very usual today. I wanted to really play with visual effects and not to be afraid of that. That's what I like in the work of Brian De Palma, who is not afraid to go to something grotesque. With this film, I had the opportunity to go very far away, to not be afraid of the effects. 

 "I like sex scenes, because it's a challenge for a director. What do I shoot, what do I show, what do I not show, what does the audience want to see, what do we not want to see?" 

NFS: What drew you to making an erotic thriller?

Ozon: I like sex scenes, because it's a challenge for a director. What do I shoot, what do I show, what do I not show, what does the audience want to see, what do we not want to see? Do you want to touch them? Do you want to go inside them? Do you want to discuss them? There are many possibilities. When you have characters who have sex in films, they don't lie, because sex doesn't lie. And after, it's always strong with the actors because the actors give a part of themselves. It's a kind of gift. I am always touched when an actor gives me something like that. 

NFS: You’re working again with actors Marine Vacth and Jérémie Renier. What was that dynamic like while filming? Did that familiarity help? 

Ozon: The script could be quite difficult for actors I didn't know and who didn't know me. They could be afraid of the sex scenes that are quite shocking. We knew that it was important [to cast with a focus on familarity] because the character is afraid of nothing and she experiments with sexual things. I realized very quickly that I needed actors who had confidence in me. I had Marine and Jérémie in mind very fast, because they are very good friends. I made two films with Jérémie before [1999’s Criminal Lovers and 2010’s Potiche]. With Marine, it's the second time we've worked together [after 2013’s Young & Beautiful]. I was quite nervous for the second time to propose a film with nudity and sexual scenes, but she really enjoyed the book and the script and for her, it was to make a composition, to show another side of her skill. For Jérémie, I think it's impossible for an actor to refuse a part with twins. It's quite the definition of an actor to be a twin, to have double personalities… He has the opportunity to have a kiss with himself, so it was really exciting.       

NFS: Also, so much of the film is shown through Chloé’s perspective and with her as the protagonist. 

Ozon: It was important to be in her head, in her unconscious, and to make no difference between reality and daydreams. To show on some level everything and to ask the audience to do the job of interpreting. I went through this process in Swimming Pool, playing between imagination and reality. For these kinds of movies, I always have the motto of Luis Buñuel: you have to film reality like dreams and dreams like reality. So it was the idea of the film to make no difference, which is disturbing but also very playful at the same time… Some people don’t want to ask questions. They just want to see the film to forget it and have a good time. For me, it’s more interesting to interact with the audience and to provoke something, in a good or bad way. Something happens in the screening, in two hours, and it's something strong.    

François Ozon's 'Double Lover.' Courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

NFS: The film is also very explicit and open about the female sex, both figuratively and visually.

Ozon: I didn't want to provoke with the shot of the vagina. The idea was to visually say to the audience what it is about. The film is starting, so you don't know what you are watching [at first], but for me, it's a film about the interiority of the character, and this woman is looking for a secret; she's suffering from something in her stomach. She’s looking for a secret. It’s a thriller about herself. I had the feeling with the eye, the symbol of searching, of discovering something, and the interiority of her body, and it was a way to say that's what the film will be. 

NFS: In the beginning of the film, you nearly spell out the entire plot and twists through Chloe’s therapy sessions with Paul. How was using that as a narrative device?

Ozon: To shoot ten minutes of psychoanalysis sessions was a real challenge. It can be very boring because it's a person speaking about her dreams, about herself. It's a monologue for five, ten minutes, so I had to be very strong visually. At the same time, I had a challenge, and I didn't know whether this would work or not, but when you see the film for the second time, you realize she says everything in that dialogue. The audience listens, but they don't hear, they don't understand exactly what it's about. There is so much information, and yet they aren't able to tell what is important and what is not. It was a way to create a floating attention. The challenge was to tell everything in those first few minutes and then turn to be more visual. The sessions turn more visual, too. A friend of mine who read the script said that I had to watch In Treatment, the series with Gabriel Byrne. Each time, it was an episode of thirty minutes and it was just the session. It wasn't boring because the actors were good, the mise en scene was very classical but very strong, and the dialogue was good. So I was less afraid of my scenes.                 

NFS: There are multiple maternal figures—Chloé’s neighbor with the stuffed cats, Jacqueline Bisset’s character, and more—though they each seem distant in Chloé’s life.

Ozon: There are three figures of "mother" in the film. There is the bad mother, the witch, and the good mother. Speaking with many psychoanalysts, when I explained my story and that it includes the neurotic side of a young woman, they said there's always a link to the mother: "The problem's always the mother." The link between the daughter and the mother is said to be the more neurotic link which exists in the family. 

"When you film a dog, it looks stupid. With cats, you have a feeling that there's an interiority and there's something strong."

NFS: Another motif is the cats. It was fascinating in the film having Chloé’s cat Milo and then Louis having that particular strain of Calico with an XXY chromosome, on top of the threatening mythos surrounding cats as gods, demons, and familiars. 

Ozon: It was in the book. Actually, I'm afraid of cats. I had a bad experience when I was a child. One jumped on me and I was very affected... It was in the book, and so I had to use cats. The cats are very strong on screen because they look clever. When you film a dog, it looks stupid. With cats, you have a feeling that there's an interiority and there's something strong.       

NFS: What are you working on now?

Ozon: My next project will be about men. It is a portrait of men of today and it's a more realistic movie. I begin shooting in a few weeks. I'm very excited about it. It's a film about the fragility of masculinity. Shooting in France with French actors…It's not about sex, but there are some links [between the upcoming project and Double Lover].           

'Double Lover' is currently in theaters. For more information, click here.

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