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Fourgasms: Leopold (Bernard Giraudeau) is at the crux of a bizarre love quadrangle.

Rainer Drops

'Water Drops on Burning Rocks' resurrects a Fassbinder story

By Richard von Busack

ONE DEPRESSING PARAGRAPH on one depressing page of Peter Biskind's depressing book on 1970s Hollywood--Easy Riders, Raging Bulls--presents a theory endorsed by producer Roger Corman and actor Jack Nicholson. Both filmmakers claim that once nudity turned up in American movies, circa 1970, the American audience's patience with European cinema ended. Says the immortal Nicholson: "All the American audience's supposed greater education through Jules and Jim, 8-1/2 and so on ... seems to have evaporated. It now seems that the reason for the success of Blowup was that it included the first beaver shot [seen] in a conventional theater."

One drop of consolation in this bitter draught: the strategy worked once and could work again. American movies are rankly, unforgivably unsexy right now. Moreover, those who are truly into just seeing some sex can skulk into the part of the video store that's behind the curtain. Thus, there's no real pressure to make films hotter than, say, the throbbing uncontrollable passion of Richard Gere looking sideways in the general direction of Winona Ryder. However, there is still Europe! As Sophie Marceau said, Dracula-wise, to a tied-up 007 (Pierce Brosnan), "Sometimes, we forget the old ways at our peril."

François Ozon's Water Drops on Burning Rocks is the Belgian director's adaptation of a play by the young Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It tells a vinegary story of Leopold (Bernard Giraudeau), an ice-blooded bourgeois man who eventually keeps three lovers on retainer. First in his harem is his pining, pale young boyfriend Franz (Malik Zidi). Later, Franz is joined by his stacked-up and round-heeled ex-girlfriend Anna (Ludivine Sagnier), accustomed to running around in her blue underwear. Finally, the ménage is surprised by Leopold's estranged wife, Véra (Anna Thomas), on the brink of suicide from neglect. The acrid couplings and quadruplings all take place in Leopold's apartment, with no outside world seen, during the course of a year. The natural pressure of this film, a play without exteriors, adds to the keen, bitter comedy.

Farce is built to reinforce monogamy. This anti-farce supposes that anyone who has power in an emotional relationship will abuse it. Franz is demoted from attractive pickup to male hausfrau, waiting for the grumpy Leopold to deign to show up. Once his man returns, Franz gets his own back with bitchery--sulking, signing and playing the stereo too loud. Anna, who originally comes to retrieve her boyfriend, decides to stay when she sees how swank Leopold's place is.

The film sums up a viscerally authentic sense of 1970s malaise in the décor of Leopold's apartment. Seeing the furniture--grubby earth tones, thick woven materials and fake brick--you may start to itch up hives that haven't pestered you since the last time you were stuck at your parents' house. Mordant but never mopey, this work by the precocious 19-year-old Fassbinder exists in that anything-can-happen world of porn, without the hackneyed quality that ruins smut. Water Drops on Burning Rocks is sexy, but it's also a sensitive, graceful and outrageous little party.

Water Drops on Burning Rocks (Unrated; 82 min.), directed by François Ozon, written by Ozon and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, photographed by Jeanne Lapoirie and starring Malik Zidi and Bernard Giraudeau, opens Friday at the Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the September 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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