A stylized look at one of the colder corners of gay petit bourgeois life
Water Drops on Burning Rocks was Fassbinder’s first play, written at age 19. Shelved and apparently forgotten, it was discovered among his papers after his death and languished until French director François Ozon (Sitcom) decided to film it. Apparently the prolific Fassbinder never wanted it produced, either as play or film, because it was too personal, based on a scandalous real-life relationship he had with an older man. It’s hard to imagine the flamboyant Fassbinder being so skittish about a potential sex scandal, but true or not, it makes watching the filmed version all the more enticing. There are only two men in this four-person play, 50-year-old salesman Leo (Bernard Giraudeau) and his 20-year-old boytoy Franz (Malik Zidi). It’s not entirely clear even by the end of this fascinating film which one is supposed to represent Fassbinder, though it has the very personal feel of autobiography, however dressed up or disguised.
In spite of the author’s youth, it’s a surprisingly mature work touching on themes of interpersonal exploitation and resonating with the peculiar mix of angst and biting black comedy seen in later works like A Fox and His Friends.
From the opening credits, it’s clear that we’re in Fassbinder territory. Cliché romantic French accordion music plays behind a montage of sunny, sterile travel postcards, portending the world of bourgeois fakery to come. Water Drops is a nasty little chamber play with a sweet surface a la The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, with relationships reduced to quietly vicious gestures and a pervasive air of suffocating oppression. Director Ozon keeps the story true to the time, setting the action in a single claustrophobic space, Leo’s sleek apartment dolled up in high ’70s style complete with shag area rug.
Divided into four acts, the story opens with jaded Leo sizing up Franz, fishing for compliments (“But physically, don’t I look much younger?”), flirting (“Room size doesn’t matter, it’s the bed that counts”), and hinting at a darker side (“Playing games helps you know people”) that will eventually dominate the lives of Franz and the two women who appear later. Franz, on the other hand, is a sensitive soul, an artistic youth interested more in “books, theatre, art in general” than in sex. Of course Leo is thrilled at the chance to shred such innocence. He convinces the wavering Franz that he’s a closet case, and in the way Fassbinder characters are instantly ready to destroy themselves, Franz almost offhandedly agrees to go to bed with him.
Leo has looks and money, which translate into power, and Franz is quickly hooked. One of the film’s most poetic moments occurs when Franz describes a dream he had about his mother’s boyfriend making love to him. “He entered me like a girl,” he says wistfully. Leo takes advantage of Franz’s vulnerability, his willingness to bare such private thoughts, and quickly maneuvers him into submission. Franz forgets his girlfriend Anna entirely, moves in, and increasingly complies with Leo’s nonstop demands. Soon Franz the thoughtful, striving artist is reborn as one of Fassbinder’s classic oppressed wife-figures (think Irm Therman in Bitter Tears). He’s pathetic in his acceptance of Leo’s nastiest moods as the price of getting the older man’s dick up his ass. Any sign of personality is swiftly met by Leo’s stern voice, and Franz increasingly retreats into a robotlike existence of sexual accommodation and domestic servitude. Fassbinder’s horror of middle-class domesticity was in place early, here evident in Leo’s railings against Franz’s inferior floor-waxing strategies, his “noisy shoes,” and his failure to return a record to its sleeve.
Leo’s fascination with ruining Franz’s innocence eventually wanes as the process moves to completion. Franz tries to move out, but in the film’s masochistic mise-en-scene, this is of course impossible. The apartment is Leo’s game space, through which he can move the human players according to his whim, but it’s also Franz’s tomb. (This recalls Fassbinder’s interest in director Douglas Sirk, who in films like All That Heaven Allows and There’s Always Tomorrow trapped his characters in sleek bourgeois homes from which they seemingly could never escape.) Leo’s masterful game-playing resurfaces as Franz declines, in a surprising heterosexual appropriation that shows gender is a secondary concern in the exercise of power. Franz recognizes this when he laments, “Fresh flesh wins out.” The eleventh-hour arrival of Vera, another of Leo’s victims, extends the range of Leo’s cruelty and gives Franz a friend to briefly bond with. The ending prefigures that of A Fox and His Friends, with even death disrespected.
Director Ozon is faithful to Fassbinder’s vision while introducing personal touches in the staging that make this a true collaboration. He captures the nuances of Franz’s often silent suffering in evocative close-ups, and formalizes his status as a prisoner in this plush space by framing him in the window. Ozon’s camera is dispassionate in recording these horrors, the simple framing making the grim action all the more powerful. Best of all is the acting, particularly by the two principals. Fassbinder can arguably be found in both these characters. Franz is surely the director’s romantic, hopeful side, the sweet youth whom Leo, the cynical grown-up Fassbinder for whom “love was colder than death,” can’t resist crushing.