The arthouse icon talks to Nick Chen about death, working with Timothée Chalamet, and his darkly funny new film, Everything Went Fine
France’s most unpredictable auteur has once again subverted expectations. Everything Went Fine, the 21st film by François Ozon in 24 years, is a poignant drama about assisted dying that’s fast-paced, often laugh-out-loud funny, and, in its third act, a heist-thriller. Then again, that shouldn’t be surprising from Ozon, 54, a genre-shifting director who’s done an all-out musical (8 Women), a black-and-white period romance (Frantz), a gay fairy tale that defined the New French Extremity movement (Criminal Lovers), and a psychosexual horror that opens with a match-cut of a vagina and a tearful eyelid (L’Amant double).
“I wanted to make an action movie,” Ozon declares in the Sofitel Hotel, the week of the UK release. “Because the subject is euthanasia, everybody’s waiting for something very dark and about emotions. But, actually, it’s about organisation.” To bypass France’s laws against euthanasia, two daughters must smuggle their elderly father from a hospital bed in Paris to Switzerland. Is this Ozon’s version of Fast & Furious? “It’s not like an American blockbuster! But the last 30 minutes have danger and the police. You want them to succeed, but at the same time, you don’t want him to die. These are the complex, opposite feelings I wanted to show.”
Ozon, as usual, penned the script, which he adapted from a 2013 memoir by Emmanuèle Bernheim, the late co-writer of Ozon’s Swimming Pool, Ricky, 5x2, and Under the Sand. On-screen, Emmanuèle (Sophie Marceau) learns that her father, André (André Dussollier), has suffered a stroke and wishes to die. Moreover, the 85-year-old man wants Emmanuèle, not her sister, Pascale (Géraldine Pailhas), to organise the procedure. Several questions arise. Did André pick Emmanuèle as a punishment? Do they inform his estranged wife, Claude (Charlotte Rampling)? Given the legal obstacles, is euthanasia even an option? However, one question never posed by Emmanuèle, who’s heartbroken by the request, is whether André should reconsider his decision. It’s up to him, she insists.
The story seems so designed for Ozon, whose films like Sitcom and In the House satirise the nuclear family model, there’s even a surprise queer element – André has a secret boyfriend. “Some mean critics in France said I added the story of the father having a gay lover,” Ozon notes with a laugh. “But I didn’t invent it! That was real! I remember, one day, I told Emmanuèle I’d like to make a film about old, gay people, and she said, ‘I have so many stories to tell you about my father. It’s a nightmare.’”
Before Ozon and Bernheim could write about old, gay people or adapt Everything Went Fine together, Bernheim died in 2017, aged 61. Bernheim also cowrote Claire Denis’s Vendredi soir and is thanked in numerous Olivier Assayas features. “Some years after (when the film takes place), Emmanuèle had terminal cancer very fast,” Ozon says. “I think making this film was a way to understand why she had this cancer. I don’t know if there’s a link. But deep inside, I had this feeling she didn’t come out of it unhurt.” Did Bernheim ever mention who she’d want to be played by onscreen? “Her husband said to me she had Charlotte Gainsbourg in mind. But for me, it was Sophie Marceau... We grew up with her. She’s an actress of my generation. I wanted for a long time to work with her. This time she said yes because the story resonated with her own life.
“She’s not like, for example, Isabelle Huppert, who wants to go into very dark things. Sophie needs to empathise with the character, and, after reading the book, she thought it was important to tell the story. She told me it was scandalous that the daughter couldn’t go with the father to Switzerland to spend the end of his life together.”
Rampling’s character, though, wasn’t mentioned in the memoir. Claude Bernheim was, in reality, a sculptor who worked with cement, and her art appears onscreen. “I asked the sister why the mother wasn’t in the book, and she said something shocking: the mother was already dead for her, because she was so sick, so depressed, so out of life. The father was sick, too, and wanted to die, but he was so full of life. But she was totally depressed and just gave up.”
For the first two-thirds, the film follows Emmanuèle’s POV, including dream sequences shot sinisterly like snapshots from L’Amant double. Then the narrative splits like an episode of 24 with parallel arcs. According to Ozon, he refined these rhythms in postproduction. “If you want the result to be exactly what you wanted at first, you have to take a lot of time, and you become mad like Stanley Kubrick. But I like the idea that the film doesn’t go in the direction you wanted it to go.”
Unlike Kubrick, Ozon is so prolific that he’s two films ahead of his UK release schedule. His 22nd film – Peter von Kant, a gender-flipped remake of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – premiered at Berlinale in February, and his 23rd, Madeleine, just wrapped. “I spoke with Juliane Lorenz, Fassbinder’s last wife, and she confirmed to me that the story of Petra von Kant came from a love story with the actor Günther Kaufmann. So I adapted it this way.” Meanwhile, Madeleine will star Huppert and Dany Boon, who’s unknown in the UK but is the Adam Sandler of France. All Ozon will reveal is that it’s a “comedy”.
“(Timothée Chalamet) has the schedule of American stars. It’s so complex. If you want to work with them, you have to organise yourself. Do they have time? I don’t know. Maybe it will happen” – François Ozon
With Isabelle Adjani co-starring in Peter von Kant, Ozon has seemingly worked with France’s biggest names: Huppert, Marceau, Rampling, Boon, Catherine Deneuve, and so on. In America, though, Timothée Chalamet has repeatedly named Ozon as his dream collaborator, and, in 2019, the pair were photographed together. “(Timothée Chalamet) speaks fluent French, which you don’t get often with American stars,” Ozon says. “But I think he has the schedule of American stars. It’s so complex. If you want to work with them, you have to organise yourself. Do they have time? I don’t know. Maybe it will happen.”
As for what connects Ozon’s disparate films, he claims not to analyse his own work, and jokes that shooting Summer of 85 – a gay romance involving energetic teenage boys – was so physically demanding, he wanted the follow-up to involve an old man who lies in bed all the time. But Everything Went Fine, he says, is an especially personal project, and is a tribute to Bernheim. “Many things were in the book. I just had to be faithful.”
He adds, “But her sister said to me, ‘I’m not sure Emmanuèle would have liked your portrait of (the father’s boyfriend) Gérard, because she hated him. And in the film, he’s nicer than in reality.’ But Emmanuèle was very warm. She would have been happy to see that the film is on the side of life and joy. Because the story is a paradox: it’s a man who loves life so much, and he wants to die. And I think Emmanuèle would have understood that. I hope so. We’ll never know.”
Everything Went Fine is out in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on June 17