Sitcom (1998)

D: François Ozon
S: Evelyne Dandry, François Marthouret

Amusing French satire from François Ozon which plays like Pasolini's Teorema. A bourgeois family disintegrates, revealing its hidden underside, when an outside agent is introduced to their picture perfect world. Only instead of an enigmatic human being as in Teorema (and its American 'remake' Dallas Doll), it is a pet which causes the impulsive and sexually uninhibited side of the characters to emerge.

It begins with what seems like an ending. A car drives up to an attractive-looking French maison and a middle aged man enters to the sound of his family singing "Happy Birthday." Their song suddenly fades with the unmistakable sound of a pistol being cocked and a confused cry of "Jean, pourquoi?" before gunshots then ring out. We are then taken back 'several months earlier' when, after the standard sitcom introduction to the principal members of the family, father (François Marthouret) arrives home with a white rat in a cage. As the film goes on, each member of the family comes into an erotic contact with the animal which changes their personality, or at least their behaviour.

First is the bookish son Adrien de Van, who abruptly announces his homosexuality over dinner, followed quickly by his sister (played by the actor's real-life sister Marina de Van), who attempts suicide. The house maid and her husband get involved too, and all manner of cross-pollination occurs, bringing a quiet chaos to the comfortable surroundings. All along father refuses to panic, calmly and magnanimously accepting each new outrageous development with a 'father knows best' attitude while mother worries endlessly and confesses to a therapist what has been happening.

At eighty minutes, the film is mercifully brief, because though it is quite funny, especially in its casual depiction of the various sexual escapades including homosexuality, incest, and sadomasochism, it is extremely obvious. The premise of the film is of course that it should be obvious, an attack on the conservative values embodied in tidy and convenient dramas played out quickly for an audience with no attention span. Therefore it is no surprise that the formula is rigidly adhered to and that the resolution is predictable (though the opening 'ending' turns out to be a cheat).

The film ultimately argues that it is the tendency to accept and absorb the outrageous which is at the heart of bourgeois stagnation, and that true revolution can only come when people are forced to respond to what they think and feel with primal, irrational emotions. This is probably why the film goes out of its way to be provocative, featuring the 'legitimate' screen's first erect penis and a naked bath scene between real life adult brother and sister. Inevitably though, it is not the events themselves but the careful handling and superb acting which makes for interesting viewing.

Ozon directs with some flair, using the confined settings of the house to good effect (again using the limited resources of the sitcom by way of commentary). Its simplicity is exactly right for the purpose, and there are no elaborate camera set ups or movements. The cast are uniformly excellent, especially Evelyne Dandry as the flustered mother who comes up with an unusual solution to her son's perceived deviance after her own moment of contact with the rat. Marthouret exudes calm as the father, and is quite hilarious in a low-key comic performance. In fact most of what happens is done in a low register, which directly contrast with the bizarre events themselves.

Sitcom is not the most original film you'll ever see, but it has the benefit of being clear and direct. It is entertaining while it runs, but one gets the feeling that if it had been any longer, it would have become tiresome. It is not a film for all, of course, and is like to offend those prone to offence, but it fills a corner for fans of the slightly odd and the art house crowd with a high level of (bourgeois) tolerance (ironically, the very thing being mocked).

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.