DIRECTED BY: François Ozon
FEATURING: François Marthouret, Évelyne Dandry, Marina de Van, Adrien de Van, Lucia Sanchez
PLOT: The father of a bourgeois family brings home a white lab rat as a pet; taboos break and hilarity ensues as the rat has psychic (?) encounters with one family member after another.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I asked my Magic 8-Ball about the List prospects of this Metamorphosis-as-a-French-comedy-of-manners with spontaneous homosexual awareness, paraplegia-onset sadomasochism, a mysterious pet rat, and a steady stream of patrician epigrams: “Signs point to ‘Yes’.”
COMMENTS: The spirit of Luis Buñuel lives on with François Ozon’s ultra-French take on the family comedy, Sitcom. All the Buñuel boxes (or, “boîtes”, if I may) are checked down the line: upper-middle class family, domestic setting, the crumbling of norms. Playing like its titular genre, Sitcom relies heavily on its capacity for clever silliness, while subverting that self-same genre’s cliched “Family meets Challenge to finish with a Happy Ending.” The family here, however, careens immediately over the edge, the challenge comes in the form of a possibly paranormal rat, and the happy ending is ripped straight from Kafka‘s long-forgotten “whimsical” period.
The unnamed father (François Marthouret) returns home one afternoon with a lab rat, adding a pet to his already very nuclear family. That evening a dinner party brings together the father, the mother (Évelyne Dandry), their son Nicolas (Adrien de Van), their daughter Sophie (Marina de Van), their Spanish maid María, and María’s Cameroonian husband, Abdu. Immediately beforehand, Nicolas has a moment alone with the rat, and at table he is restless until he announces out of the blue that he is homosexual. The mother recruits Abdu—a physical education teacher with experience counseling teenagers—to talk to her boy. As Abdu tries to work out his approach, he sees the rat, gets bitten by it, and then proceeds to help the son confirm his homosexuality in an altogether hands-on kind of way. In turn, each household member has his or her life-changing encounter with the rat.
While Sitcom is an ensemble piece, with each family member’s collapse and growth explored, the focus ends up, almost through omission, on the father. During his son’s discovery and embrace of homosexuality, his daughter’s failed suicide that turns her into both a paraplegic and a dyspeptic dominatrix, and his wife’s eventual seduction of the son, he remains impressively unflappable. When Sophie asks him if he knows about what happened between his wife and son, he remarks, “Of course”, adding, “I don’t think incest will solve the problems of Western Civilization, but your mother is an exceptional woman.” However, Sophie’s hopes of seducing her father are soon quashed when he admits he does not find her attractive. Having only aphoristic rejoinders to scandalous revelations, the father figure remains something of a cypher.
One hint is given during the opening dinner scene. The father delivers a monologue about the Ancient Greeks, musing, “Homosexuality was an institution with no shame.” Here’s a man who is quite probably gay himself, but he retreats into the trappings of bourgeois convention. And Ozon somehow litters other contemplative and tender moments throughout the zany norm-breaking silliness. Maria comforts Sophie’s much put-upon boyfriend in an NC-17+ kind of way in one scene, and things are kept impressively platonic as Nicolas washes his sister’s hair while talking about his encounter with their mother, both naked in the tub together. And so it goes. I’m not certain on the particulars of how I stumbled across this movie during college, but I saw it around the same time as Visitor Q. That’s appropriate, as I cannot think of two more feel-good family comedies.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Francois Ozon’s absurd, outre “Sitcom” rips a page straight from the Luis Bunuel handbook of bourgeois contempt and writes a novella of relentless sociosexual ludicrousness brought to a Guignol head by the lab rat who’s moved in with the suburban family under siege… Ozon is seemingly attracted to our pop garbage, jamming a few sticks of Acme TNT in the structural silliness of our sitcoms and watching it go ‘boom.'” –Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)