France 1997

Reviewed by Jonathan Romney


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

A man arrives home on his birthday and shoots his family dead. Months earlier, his wife Hélène welcomes Maria, a new Spanish maid, and introduces her to the household: her children Nicolas and Sophie and Sophie's boyfriend David. Her husband Jean arrives home with a pet rat. Maria, invited to dinner, arrives with her Cameroonian husband Abdu, while Nicolas gets to know the rat. At dinner Nicolas announces that he is gay. Abdu is bitten by the rat, then seduces Nicolas. Sophie defenestrates herself and is left paraplegic. Later Nicolas has left school and organises orgies at home. After spending time with the rat, the newly sensual Hélène attempts to 'cure' her son by seducing him. Sophie flirts with her father, who rejects her advances.

Months later the household has become increasingly anarchic. Sophie is a harsh dominatrix to David, who is consoled by Maria. When Hélène suggests family therapy, her children agree, but Jean declines. He comes home one day and shoots them all - but it turns out to be a dream, interrupted by a phone call from Hélène, asking him to dispose of the troublesome rat. Jean microwaves and eats the animal. Arriving home, Hélène, Sophie and Nicolas are attacked by a giant rat, which they overcome and kill. With Sophie now walking again, the happy family attend Jean's funeral.


François Ozon made a considerable splash recently in French cinema with a number of inventively perverse shorts, such as Regarde la mer, a two-hander with a young mother and a predatory female hitchhiker which gives a twist to the territorial unrest of Polanski's Knife in the Water (1962). Ozon's first feature, however, proves a serious disappointment, partly because he seems so anxious to display a light touch, with paradoxically cumbersome results. Sitcom may look less familiar in the context of French cinema than it does elsewhere. There are heavy traces of Buñuel, Joe Orton, Almodóvar and (the model Ozon has explicitly evoked) John Waters. The film belongs in the by now altogether cosy French cinematic tradition of épater les bourgeois, although Ozon is perhaps the first to 'out' the tradition, taking it into queer territory.

As an attempt at a Waters-style assault on middle-class mores, Sitcom fits the template all too comfortably. Ozon begins with a painfully nice, well-heeled family (placid Dad, amiably fussy Mum, studious son and sexpot daughter), then turns their relationships upside down, one after the other. In fact the film's most perverse aspect may be this seriality: although sexual anarchy accumulates, there's no sense of a linear thread linking the various stages of chaos. Hélène's sexual repression is cured by her own incestuous attempts to 'cure' her son, but soon after she's her old self, yearning for normality.

Rather than telling a 'straight' story (in whatever sense), Ozon shuffles his elements like Happy Families cards into different permutations each time. The strategy of the sitcom is at play here too: after each episode's explosion into chaos, there's a return to base, to a tentative status quo. But the film's narrative elasticity - the loop back to the start, the 'only a dream' fake climax, the leap into sci-fi horror, not to mention the distancing stage curtains at the start - finally makes for an anything-goes feel and an apparent lack of satiric rigour.

Ozon's recipe for family discord is to introduce a sexy intruder, a strategy familiar from Orton's play Entertaining Mr Sloane and Pasolini's film Theorem (1968). But to make matters more complex there are three intruders, each an exaggerated version of Otherness as it might appear to the French bourgeoisie: an African man and a Spanish woman, both of them sexually up for anything, and the laboratory rat which, with its blank gaze seen in extreme close-up and subjective shots through the bars, seems to be the narrative genius experimenting on the humans. Ozon's most acute stroke is never to identify the rat explicitly as the instigator of desire. When Jean eats it, he seems to become it. But this is also left to our imagination, close-ups of fur and a bloodied jumper letting us infer the worst.

Sitcom is more unnerving in its little tweaks rather than its raunchier nudges. Assorted hardcore characters arrive for Nicolas' orgy, but the most disconcerting guest is a dapper little man with a bag who announces himself politely as "the doctor". The film's most mysterious and genuinely Buñuelian touch is its opening and closing phone calls from Hélène's friend Françoise, who seems to have caught some unnameable illness.

It's hard to know quite what Ozon is offering beyond the standard lampooning of repression. It's hardly that taboo-busting to reveal that under the squeaky-clean appearance everyone's up for a romp with the domestics and a fistful of courgettes. The aspect of the film that remains hardest to pin down is the role of Jean. As a distant paterfamilias who hides behind a repertoire of banal proverbs, he's clearly the patriarchal instrument of oppression and therefore ripe for massacre. Yet he's also the one who, when Nicolas outs himself, delivers a reasoned, altogether Foucauldian lesson on homosexuality in classical Greece. This refusal to yield entirely to unequivocal caricature finally allows the film to breathe. Sitcom might not work that well as comedy but, with its displacements, it should provide debate for film-and-psychoanalysis classes for years to come.

Whatever Sitcom's shortcomings, it's definitely the work of a confident stylist who's not afraid to acknowledge his borrowings. Ozon follows late Buñuel's use of an exaggeratedly bland shooting style. He also, like Almodóvar, has an appealing way of placing his decor on equal terms with his characters, for example the colonial fantasy of Nicolas' desert-island wallpaper and the candy-striped wall that fills the screen when David walks out of view. He's served well by an extraordinary cast, especially Evelyne Dandry, a sort of radiant, hot-to-trot June Whitfield, and the slyly rattish children, played by Marina and Adrien de Van. They are real-life siblings, which adds an extra frisson to their bath scene. It's encouraging to imagine that Sitcom isn't all talk, and that Ozon was happy to encourage taboo-breaking on set.


Olivier Delbosc
Marc Missonnier
François Ozon
Director of Photography
Yorick Le Saux
Dominique Petrot
Art Director
Angélique Puron
Éric Neveux
©Fidélité Productions/Le Studio Canal +
Production Companies
Fidélité Productions presents in co-production with Le Studio Canal +
With the participation of Canal +
Fidélité Productions
Carine Hazan
Ronald Kirjner
Daniel Centur
Production Manager
Paul Raoux
Unit Production Manager
Gaï Assouline
Assistant Directors
Jean-Guillaume Mathieu
Guylaine Huet
Script Supervisor
Maureen Meyer
Hervé Poeydemenge
Agnès Morlhigem
Music Co-ordinator
Irène Toporkoff
"Feirlich II" from "Symphonie no 1", "Langsam" from "Symphonie no 3", "Ruhevoll I" from "Symphonie no 4" by Gustav Mahler; "Lettre à Elise" by Ludwig van Beethoven; "Prélude en la mineur" by Frédéric Chopin; "Adagio pour cordes en C. Mineur K. 546" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; "Sérénade opus, 22" by Antonín Dvorák; "Sphères", "Chants des baleines" by Jacques Lasry, T. Lasry; "Grille echo", "Tellurique" by T. Lasry; "Happy Birthday" by Patty Smith Hill,
Mildred J. Hill; "The Rhythm of the Night" by F. Bontempi, G. Spagna, A. Gordon, P. Glenister, M. Gaffey; "Résurrection" by Albert Roussel; "L'attaque du rat géant" composed/arranged by Éric Neveux, violoncello by Emma Savouret, violin by Guillaume Dettmar
Sound Engineer
François Guillaume
Sound Mixer/Sound Editor
Benoît Hillebrant
Sound Effects
Christophe Bourreau
Hervé Buirette
Rat Trainer
Bruno Salvatore
Evelyne Dandry
Hélène, the mother
François Marthouret
Jean, the father
Marina de Van
Sophie, the daughter
Adrien de Van
Nicolas, the son
Stéphane Rideau
Lucia Sanchez
Jules-Emmanuel Eyoum Deido
Jean Douchet
Sébastien Charles
guy with courgettes, group session
Vincent Vizioz
guy with red-hair, group session
Kiwani Cojo
pierced guy, group session
Gilles Frilay
guy with moustache, group session
Antoine Fischer
Gregory, neighbour's little boy
Alliance Releasing (UK)
7,211 feet
80 minutes 7 seconds
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011