Rocks off

Water Drops on Burning Rocks a tale of dominance and submission

Opening images of tinted postcards and twinkling Bavarian accordion music immediately establish a snarky, nasty sense of humor about some very bad behavior going on beneath Water Drops on Burning Rocks' pleasantly controlled surface.

The film is based on a 1964 unproduced play written by the enormously talented, notoriously cynical German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder when he was just 19 (the age of the boy undone by desire at the story's center). It's divided into four acts, each of which centers on sexual Svengali Leopold (Bernard Giraudeau), who manipulates both men and women with his uncanny understanding of the link between psychology and desire. With a reptilian demeanor and a glacial stare, Giraudeau gives the impression of a wolf in a children's story, licking his chops as he sizes up a variety of Little Red Riding Hoods. Leopold is an almost comically diabolical lech with his swinger's instruments of seduction like his chic, dust-free bachelor pad. Leopold's too-perfect apartment and chronic neatness (he has to wash two soiled glasses before he can have sex with his new lover) are either indicators of elevated good taste or of a robotic detachment.

Water opens with a seduction-in-progress as the 50-year-old Leopold banters (with all the "playfulness" of a leopard pawing a rabbit) with his latest pick-up, 19-year-old Franz (Malick Zidi). Though Franz professes to be involved with Anna (Ludivine Sagnier), he is clearly intrigued by Leopold's increasingly titillating line of questioning, which soon moves to Franz's first homosexual encounter at boarding school and his true feelings for Anna.

By Act Two, Franz is dressed in fetish-y lederhosen and functioning as Leopold's virtual sex slave. Transformed from knowing club kid into obedient hausfrau, Franz greets Leopold after a rough day at the office, fetches him a drink and fixes him dinner, all the while putting up with a heaping helping of Leopold's verbal abuse.

Like Roman Polanski's underrated Bitter Moon, an equally kinky black comedy about the limited shelf life of sexual desire, Water focuses on the inevitable power imbalance of relationships in which one person is in control and someone else isn't.

As the drama enters its fourth act, Franz has been reduced to a will-less husk of his former self, his fluffy blond girlfriend has become Leopold's latest sexual casualty, and Leopold's bedraggled former lover Vera (Anna Thompson), still bewitched by Leopold years after their relationship crumbled, has also made an appearance. All dwell compliantly under Leopold's thumb as he — a sadist with just enough charm and sexual charisma to lure his victims like flies to sticky-paper — preys on their vanity and neediness, which he exploits to inject a momentary sexual charge into his flatline existence.

French director Francois Ozon's sensibility is as detached and cunning as Leopold's. Full of menacing overtones and visual perversity, Ozon delights in moments like the one where Leopold moves closer to Franz and purrs the double entendre, "Do you want to play a game?" (Ozon then impishly cuts to a shot of his crotch filling the screen). Ozon adapts Fassbinders' play to the screen with an assiduous chilliness that the style-drunk, analytical German director would have undoubtedly admired, enhancing Leopold's creepy mindfucks with expressive camerawork.

When the camera roams, as during the weirdly subterranean seduction that opens the film, it is with a destabilizing tension, circling Franz like an extension of Leopold's entrapping, mesmeric psyche. And when Ozon's camera is static, framing Franz and Leopold in perfect symmetry, their backs turned to us as Franz reveals his deepest sexual desire, a theatrical sterility emphasizes the gulf between the characters even as their words suggest a growing intimacy.

Each act of Water ends with a different character splayed out on Leopold's bed while the sweet strains of a sparkling music box tune juice the perversity. Such stylized moments — like a scene where all four players break into a perfectly choreographed samba — play up the theatrical origins of the work. This flamboyantly false staging seems perfectly suited to such a droll, meticulously calculated story. As in the theater, events are never quite real and yet contain a truth that cuts to the heart of the matter: Relationships are all about dominance and submission. And we are all creatures defined by insecurity and selfishness; it just takes a savvy predator like Leopold to manipulate.??