Cult Classics: Sitcom

“I don’t think incest will solve the problems of Western Civilization, but your mother is an exceptional woman” – Now I know that quote could put many people off this film, and understandably so, but within context it’s a shockingly funny moment, and also shows just how unconventional a piece it is. Directed by François Ozon in 1998, Sitcom has one of the most memorable openings to any film I’ve seen, along with an ending which actually outdoes it.

The film begins with a father (François Marthouret) entering a house and as the camera remains on the building we hear the family sing Happy Birthday to him. Oddly enough whilst watching it I thought to myself it’d be amusing if we suddenly heard gunshots, but it turns out I was wrong, it wasn’t amusing at all but all rather horrifying. So what makes this seemingly meek and mild man a murderer? Or is everything not quite as it appears? As it goes it’s the latter, but despite this it’s in no way disappointing.

After that scene we cut back to six months earlier and it all starts off in a bright and breezy manner as the family prepare for a meal together, and the daughter, Sophie (Marina de Van, who acts along her real life brother Adrien), makes out with her boyfriend David (Stéphane Rideau) whilst casually discussing dinner in a gently amusing scene, but then the father brings home a white rat and this seemingly normal family soon become very different creatures. For anyone who touches it is changed completely, with the first instance being the son, Nicholas (Adrien de Van), turning gay. Though his announcement of his homosexuality over dinner causes little reaction apart from that of the mother, Helen (Évelyne Dandry), who is soon in floods of tears.

From that point on everything slowly goes quite, quite crazy as everyone interacts with the rat, and so soon the family’s maid and her husband Abdu are seducing Nicholas, Sophie’s attempted suicide and is now in a wheelchair indulging in sadomasochism and enjoying torturing and humiliating others (along with considering hanging herself), whilst Nicholas is having group sex in his bedroom. Throughout this the father is barely present, vaguely acknowledging events but not caring about them, and the mother is trying to pretend that there’s nothing unusual going on. That is until she eventually cracks, plays with the rat and then decides she needs to try to cure Nicholas’s homosexuality by seducing him. Hence the quote at the beginning.

In interviews Ozon has talked about how the film’s title is a direct reference to American sitcoms and how the majority during the late nineties focused on traditional family values and whimsical humour, and his wish to subvert such themes. He’s certainly successful in his aims as it takes a fairly average sitcom set up and then breaks every taboo you could imagine, and probably seven or eight that you’d never thought of before, as it explores all of the ideas and concepts that a normal sitcom wouldn’t go near in a million years. It has a very dark sense of humour despite the colourful and charming way it’s filmed, and even one explicit sex scene which I’m not convinced was needed but then as Ozon has created something which is the exact opposite of a normal sitcom it’s inclusion is perhaps understandable.

Towards the end we learn that the opening shooting is all a dream, which would normally enrage me, but the actual ending is even better. I won’t spoil it for you here but it’s disturbing and then very funny, and what more can you ask from a film than that? Ozon’s created a singular work here, a truly unusual and bizarre film that’s fairly perverted and yet still constantly amusing, it’s a movie which will make you laugh a great deal. And then feel slightly nauseous when you think about certain scenes. It’s part comedy of manners and part twisted thriller, with a dash of sexual farce and all round lunacy, and is certainly something which once seen will never be forgotten.

Alex Finch.

Related Links:
Our review of François Ozon’s 8 Femmes.
François Ozon’s Official Site.

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