"I, on the other hand, ended up a suicidal paraplegic dominatrix who tried to seduce my father before his twisted admiration for the rat changed him too, literally."
Some people claim that French cinema is just too weird for their tastes. To cinephiles, that stance is patently ridiculous—some of the greatest directors of all time hail from France. But I'll concede that the average French film contains a certain freedom from constraints, a buoyant disregard for convention. Be it laissez faire or simple comfort with humanity, the French explore touchy subjects within otherwise normal boundaries. A film could be swimming along just fine in waters of love, strife, death, and taxes…when suddenly we are confronted with a sadomasochistic clown, or a rat with mysterious psychosexual powers. These incongruous elements can be mislabeled as abstract or discordant (although sometimes the labels apply fittingly). Usually the director is making a vital statement with these outlandish anomalies.
After seeing Sitcom, however, I wonder if there's something to these claims that French cinema might be a little…weird.
Facts of the Case
The family seems typical: an emotionally distant father, a withdrawn son, a horny teenaged daughter, and a concerned mother trying to hold the family together. They live in an airy home with lemon colored walls and pastel housewares. The colorful surroundings contrast sharply with the brooding tension present in the family.
When Father brings home a new pet rat, the family's emotional chemistry goes on the blink. People start acting out their darkest obsessions and their most fervent desires. Virtually every line drawn by societal constraints is erased. In such an environment, the most outrageous actions become the norm. Incest, homosexual orgies, murder, sadomasochism, and emotional laziness become subplots in this wacky sitcom.
Sitcom is an unsteady blend of farce, satire, and black comedy. As satire, it is too obvious: disengaged father, distraught mother, seemingly normal yet disturbed children. This road has been well traveled before and since. The black comedic elements occasionally score, such as when Nicolas has a homosexual orgy with the zucchini that would later be prepared for dinner. But most of the black comedic moments are too self-conscious to work. The most successful element of the humor triad is farce, which is an uncomfortable approach to humor that unsettles the viewer while making a mockery of the characters. In this, Sitcom excels.
François Ozon pokes fun at bourgeois inanity through the vehicle of the structured American sitcom. The entire film takes place within a small assortment of sets, mostly interior shots. There are no camera tricks; most scenes employ the medium shot from a static camera. The characters are quickly established and never given much depth. These hallmarks of the situational comedy give us an immediate understanding of both the setting and the target of Ozon's venom. Within that framework, Ozon's faux family begins to degenerate into an encyclopedia of sexual deviance.
This sensationalistic approach might have delivered a satisfying film, but Ozon doesn't seem convinced of the direction he has set for himself. He repeatedly violates the framework he's established. (Spoilers ahead.) The opening scene has the father drive home and kill everyone, with the camera outside the home. Later we revisit the scene from the interior and see the carnage firsthand. There is comedic irony in the situation; any member of the household would willingly have granted Father sexual pleasure, but it is only in death that he finds them erotic. Unfortunately, we soon learn that it was all a dream. I detest this ruse when used so blithely. Unless the film deals directly with dreams, paranoia, or other internal mental dialogues, it is cheap to write off a dramatic scene as "just a dream." Furthermore, to have both the opening and the semi-climax of the film be based on quicksand takes away much of its power.
These flaws are obvious, but they aren't enough to completely alienate us from the film. There are smaller moments of bizarre irony that work well. Sophie catches her boyfriend in a sexual act with the maid and snaps an explicit Polaroid. Later, when her mother expresses disbelief, Sophie casually throws the photo on the kitchen table. We want to both smack and applaud Sophie for her delicious malice.
Once the conceit of the film becomes clear, it is amusing to watch each person come into contact with the rat and act out his or her obsession. The film is successful at letting us in on a secret while keeping the characters in the dark. As a symbol, the rat is ultimately unconvincing, but the mayhem it creates is fun to watch.
While I found François Marthouret's paternal performance one-dimensional, Èvelyne Dandry's portrayal of the mother was inspired. This was a challenging role, requiring naïvete and seduction, strength and weakness. She is put into preposterous situations, but maintains a worrisome equanimity. When she finally snaps, it is with wonderful release and unconventional self-nurturing.
Sitcom will appeal to many through sheer audacity and moments of inspired wit. The film is not cohesive, and is too deeply flawed to be entirely successful. But if you are looking for something out of the ordinary that isn't completely devoid of sentiment, Sitcom may fit the bill.
New Yorker Films is typically light with extras, and this disc is no exception. The lone extra is a short film by Ozon titled Photo de Familie. The video quality is poor and there is no sound. The actors are Ozon's family members. Ahh…a home video. Yet it is an ambitious home video that contains a macabre (if inconsequential) plot and a special effects shot or two. I'm not sure what this video demonstrates, except that making movies is something Ozon has done for most of his life.
Sitcom fares better in terms of sound and video, but neither will stun anyone with sheer quality. The transfer is very soft, with color areas seeping into one another. There is a delicate shimmer when people move that is probably digital noise reduction. The colors are bright and there is little edge enhancement. Dust and scratches seem to have been cleaned up and the grain is not overwhelming. The sound quality is average. Dialogue is sometimes muddled, and there are few effects to spice up the sound.
As a first feature-length film, Sitcom demonstrates the promise that Ozon would later deliver. This early effort is too inconsistent to provide a wholly satisfying experience, but snippets of the film work very well. The DVD treatment is staunchly average, neither a selling point nor a deterrent. Fans of Ozon, or of offbeat cinema, will want to consider this for their collection.
The paterfamilias is sentenced to execution by metamorphosis into a giant rat, whereupon he is to be pummeled to death by a suicidal paraplegic dominatrix.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Short Film: Photo de Familie
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