Adapted by François Ozon from a never-produced play by Fassbinder, the film is set, presumably, in 1970s Berlin. Leopold (Bernard Giraudeau), a smug, handsome fifty-year-old, picks up the virginal Franz (Malik Zidi), a chain-smoking redhead thirty years his junior, and the two quickly find themselves living together. Months later, still deeply in love (or lust), the cracks in their relationship begin to show, partly due to familiarity but perhaps more readily because of Leopold’s nasty temper and Franz’s belief that he’s being regarded alternately as a whore and a housewife. With Leopold away, Franz’s ex-fiancee Anna (the stunning and full-bosomed Ludivine Sagnier), eager to leave her new beau to rekindle her relationship with Franz, unexpectedly shows up, demanding that he run away with her to wed and procreate. When Leopold returns, things become interesting, even more so when his ex-lover, the enigmatic Vera (Anna Thomson), comes along, she too on the rebound from another relationship.
Water Drops on Burning Rocks earned top honors at the Berlin International Film Festival where it debuted, but it’s difficult to imagine why—not because the film is bad, but because it is dense, difficult and certainly not for most tastes. It’s a chamber drama in the tradition of Fassbinder’s own, and it borrows liberally from the late German auteur’s many films. It takes place entirely within Leopold’s home, the claustrophobia cranked up to such a degree that it’s hardly believable there’s life outside of it, not even the emergence of the two women, the few phone calls, brief reminiscences of life elsewhere or Leopold’s business trips convincing otherwise. It’s a dialogue-driven mood piece that plays with allegory and flirts with melodrama.
Fittingly, the film is broken up into four acts—fitting because it just feels right, though I won’t dabble with interpretations as to why—with the first act for me being the most accomplished. The film begins with our protagonists entering a darkened flat. They’re obviously new to each other—though each correctly guesses the other’s age—the older man Leopold asking a lot of personal questions, the younger man Franz nervously responding with dodgy bromides that nevertheless pique the older man’s interests. Leopold encircles Franz, as the camera pivots around them both, like a shark encircling its prey and the homoerotic tension mounts (or the homophobic tension if you’re so inclined). At one point Leopold stands up from his chair—while Ozon leaves the camera where it is for a close-up of the older man’s crotch—and asks the youth if he likes to play games. Who doesn’t?
A bit of board-gaming and gin-drinking leads to a shot of the two staring out of the flat’s two skinny windows and toward the camera; it’s pitch black outside so all that can be seen are the two men looking out of their boxes of diffuse light, emanating from Leopold’s chic and very ’70s pad. Leopold says, “let me be frank”, a decidedly new tactic, and he asks Franz if he’s ever slept with a man. He hasn’t, but he’s willing to give the older man a shot at the title. The seduction scenes to follow will close this chapter of the film as well as the second and third acts, though Ozon reconfigures them every time. Prompted by a gay dream professed by Franz, Leopold enters the bedroom fully-clothed, trench-coated, as Franz lies naked on the sheets, hands cupped over his genitalia.
Flash forward roughly six months and the two are living together at Leopold’s place. Their relationship is both mordant and passionate, mirroring the relationship Leopold had with his prior female flame in which the two took unabated joy in having sex and unabated grief in their colloquy. Their worst traits quickly bubble to the surface, and by the third act they’re doing almost nothing but intentionally pushing each other’s buttons. They obviously (and restlessly) love each other, but their inability to communicate signals an inevitable breach. Surfacing too are themes of power and exploitation which put to rest any doubt that this is Fassbinder country.
Especially poignant are the ways these psycho-sexual games manifest themselves in Franz and Leopold’s (frequent) arguments. I don’t know either of these actors1, but they’re superb, and so is the script. Each repeatedly takes things the wrong way; Franz wonders aloud how Leopold will leave him one day, something Leopold doesn’t want to contemplate, and he responds with a playful and affected incredulity, but clearly he’s bothered by the thought. Franz has the habit of having to have the last word in any conversation, and Leopold makes a point of pointing this out to him, so of course, not wanting to prove him right, Franz doesn’t respond. Eventually, Franz uses the very same power tactics on Anna that Leopold used on him. Unsurprisingly, it works.
There is a curious tonal shift in the final act, beginning with the quartet (Anna, Leopold, Vera, Franz) dancing a silly “Tanze Samba mit mir” in ’70s style. This is followed by Leopold’s suggestion, still somewhat credible, of a group session in his bedroom which the girls are giddily eager to participate in, leaving Franz behind. When Franz, anguished, calls his mother to tell her he’s taken poison, she doesn’t seem to care, saying only “bon voyage”; Leopold too takes his death in stride and eventually so does Vera who wants to leave because “there’s a corpse in here”. Admittedly, this is all pretty funny, but I don’t know that it closes the film satisfactorily.
On the other hand, really the film ends the moment Franz contemplates shooting his lovers and opts instead to take his own life. The rest can be viewed as a caustic coda to a tragic tale. Or Ozon is simply stepping out of his film while still reinforcing his primary themes, sealing them off hermetically with obvious meta-stitching—just as the flat itself is cloistered—an acknowledgment of the story’s dramatic conceits. Ozon also grafts the concerns of another Fassbinder film, In a Year With 13 Moons, onto his ending. We learn that, like the heroine of that film, Vera is a boy who changed her sex for the love of a man who ultimately disowned her.
Franz and Leopold’s relationship has all the intimacy, the vitriol and the blinkered sensitivity of any relationship, gay or straight. Which leads to another curious point: the question of orientation is never broached in the slightest. Anna doesn’t seem to mind that Franz left her for a man. For as much role reversal that’s happening in this film, and as admirable as its ambivalence may be, there do not appear to be any consequences. Ozon approaches everything equivocally which signals to me that he’s proffering sex without attachment as the solution to attachments (of course, honesty is an unexplored corridor). Heartache (and even death) comes in one way or another when characters try to possess, control, manipulate or fetishize each other. And every character dances around married life. This shouldn’t be surprising coming from a play written in 1969 by a nineteen-year-old Fassbinder, yet it’s a little surprising coming from a French filmmaker in 2000.
1 Mere seconds of research confirmed that I indeed saw Bernard Giraudeau in Raoul Ruiz’s That Day (and apparently he was in Bilitis). The actor passed away this year, just a few months ago as of this writing.