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François Ozon: ‘Young people now don’t have the inhibitions older actors did’ | Film

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French writer-director François Ozon, 52, is famous for his prodigious output. He directed his first full-length feature, Sitcom, in 1998, and his 19th, Summer of 85, a love story about two teenage boys in a Normandy seaside town, is out in the UK this month. In between, his diverse output includes the musical 8 Women, the retro comedy Potiche, the Ruth Rendell adaptation The New Girlfriend and last year’s By the Grace of God.

What were you doing in the summer of ’85?
What was I doing? I think I went to Spain with a friend – I can’t remember exactly, I’d have to ask my parents. The film was going to be called Summer of 84. I changed the title because of Robert Smith of the Cure. I absolutely wanted to use their song In Between Days, and he said, “Sorry, but that came out in 1985.” So I changed the title, and he let us have the song. For me, the film’s really about 1984, because that’s when I was 16.

This is your 19th film, but apparently it was nearly your first.
I read the book – Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers – in 1985. I thought, if I ever make films, I’d love this to be my first feature. In fact, I wrote a script with a friend, which I’d completely forgotten about. It took me 30 years to do it, but it was nice to think that now I was making a first film over again.

It’s a young adult novel – for teenagers at the time, gay teens especially, it was a revelation, because sexuality is never a problem in it. At the time, the representation of homosexuality in cinema – literature too – was always problematic, it was always about conflict, coming out, transgression, guilt. The book didn’t have any of that, it was just a love story. For years I hoped that Gus Van Sant or Rob Reiner or some other American film-maker would adapt it, and no one ever did.

You have two terrific young actors, Félix Lefebvre and Benjamin Voisin. How did you choose them, and how did you get such uninhibited performances?
I was looking for chemistry – I wanted people to want to see them together. I had a lot of problems on my earlier films, with actors saying: “I can’t play a gay role.” This time I said: “Do you have any problems kissing a boy?”, and they said no. Young people now have a great fluidity, they don’t have the inhibitions that older actors did. Maybe it’s also because they’d seen films like Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Call Me By Your Name – for them it was all very simple.

The film came out in French cinemas in July, after being included in the official selection of a Cannes festival that didn’t actually happen.
I was very flattered to be included, but I was sad for my actors. It would have been great for them to walk up the red carpet, but they’ll do that with other films. We had a lot of offers from streaming platforms, but I shot the film on super-16, and I really wanted people to see it on the big screen.

I believe in cinemas. If you look at French attendance figures, they’re 50% down from last year but that’s because there are no American films – whereas French films are maybe only 20% down. There’s a lot going on in French cinema at the moment – a lot of variety, a lot of debate, commercial films, auteur films, some very strong personalities, it’s pretty healthy. And there are a lot of film shoots happening in France right now – everyone’s making the most of it, in case there’s another lockdown.

How did you spend your lockdown?
It worked out quite well, because I ended up in the country for two months. I was worried at first because I’m really a city person, but I got used to it fairly quickly. I made the most of it to read and watch a lot of films, and write a script. But I didn’t watch a single TV series, I’ve had enough of them. I just watched classics – Fellini, Kurosawa… I needed to get back to the essentials.

Watch a trailer for Summer of 85.

What are you most looking forward to now?
I’m looking forward to Covid being over and everyone being vaccinated, so we can take off our masks and life can start again, differently. And I’m hoping that Trump won’t be re-elected, because everyone’s hanging on the US elections, and it’s affecting the whole world, artists included. Everyone wants to know whether the world is going to get worse, or if there’s a chance of things improving.

How has the new political awareness of the Trump era played out in France?
Did you follow the César awards in February? Roman Polanski winning best director really shocked people, women especially. No one’s saying he’s not a great director – for me, he absolutely is – but giving him a prize at this moment feels like the response of an old world that can’t see how things are changing. But they have a rule that if you win best film, you can’t also win best director – otherwise, Ladj Ly would have won both (for Les Misérables). If you look at the Césars, Roschdy Zem, who’s of Moroccan descent, won best actor, Ladj Ly is of African descent, a lot of women won prizes, so the diversity is there.

Do you think about your old films – do any of them keep you awake at night?
No, I’m a very bad father, I abandon all my children. (Laughs.) Right now I’m in the present, and the future – what’s past is past.

Summer of 85 is released in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on 23 October


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