Berlinale 2009 Review: Ricky
Even if you’re familiar with the work of writer-director Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool, Angel), one of France’s most versatile young filmmakers, nothing quite prepares you for the baffling, Lynchian turn that happens about half an hour into Ricky, the new film he’s unveiled for the Berlinale Competition. You might gape in wonder or laugh in astonishment at Ozon’s audacity, as many did at the initial press screening, or just shake your head when it’s all over, wondering “What the hell was that all about?” In fact, the less you know going in, the more likely you are to respond to the film’s central effect, which builds menace around the arrival of a new baby. Whether or not you thrill to the abrupt gear shift or find it utterly risible, though, depends on your tolerance for fantasy and the sudden rupturing of Ricky’s carefully groomed social-realist scenario.
Adapted from the short story “Moth” by English author Rose Tremain, Ozon’s film is the story of a working-class mom, Katie (Alexandra Lamy) who toils on the assembly line at a provincial French bottle factory, trying to make ends meet while caring for her 7-year-old daughter, Lisa (Melusine Malaynce), who often fends for herself in the bleak, nondescript council flat they share. Ozon quickly and convincingly establishes the isolating, hard-luck toil of their life together, drawing a gritty, affecting portrait of go-it-alone determination and parent-child solidarity. If both Fassbinder and the Dardennes brothers spring to mind here as reference points, that’s entirely deliberate: we are primed from the first extended shot, which draws us into Katie’s teary interview with a social worker, to expect a bleak, naturalistic tale about a desperate woman in some tragic circumstance, the precise details of which the film will soon unfold. Yet this is merely a set-up for another magical, unexpected twist Ozon intends to shock us with.
At the factory, Katie meets burly Franco-Spanish co-worker Paco (Sergi Lopez), who, not long after their impulsive shag on a smoke break, enters the household. When Katie learns she is pregnant, Lisa, who’s already remote and ambivalent toward mom’s new beau, can’t help feeling the drift in attention as the couple excitedly await their new bundle of joy. Ricky pops out gorgeously cherubic and animated, but also fussy and irritable, which causes strain on everyone. Ozon ups the ante, though, by introducing a visceral sense of foreboding when a mysterious bruise appears on Ricky’s back. The specter of abuse rears its head; Paco’s complicity becomes a distinct possibility. So does Lisa’s. Then comes the hat trick: equal parts mystery, miracle, and B-movie-grade absurdity.
Ricky is a film that I found both maddeningly opaque and extravagantly fanciful. I respect Ozon, and his inclinations toward Hitchcockian suspense and vaguely mystical enigmas have always led me, in films like his exquisite Under the Sand, to a place of intellectual satisfaction. The fairy-tale aspect of Ricky founders, unfortunately, on a few unresolved inconsistencies. Ozon, perhaps wanting to retain elements of Tremain’s tale that worked on the page, couldn’t find a way of adapting this heady material without leaving a few head-scratching lacunaes in the story. By the end, the expertly martialed Cronenbergian tension gives way to otherworldly Look Who’s Talking–style antics and a final gesture weighted with impregnable solemnity. Certainly, Ozon wanted to explore some ideas about family and divinity, absence and estrangement, and (at his best) childhood anxiety, but the disparate parts of his gifted-kid flick don’t quite add up. Movie narratives don’t need to explicable, necessarily, or common-sensical, but they should follow their own internal logic.