Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote Water Drops On Burning Rocks when he was 19, and shelved it.
The play first saw limelight in 1985, two years after Fassbinder died of an overdose. Director Franĉois Ozon has long nurtured a professional crush on Fassbinder, though he was still in high school when the master died. By bringing Water Drops On Burning Rocks to the screen, Ozon pays tribute to a mentor of sorts, and taps into the same throbbing spleen that juiced Fassbinder's cruel love stories.
Fifty-year-old Leopold brings home young Franz and browbeats him into a relationship -- a technique Fassbinder would favour throughout his career.
Franz settles into a houseboy routine; in the film's cruelest act of all, he even sports lederhosen. But when his ex-girlfriend shows up, Franz subjects her to the treatment he's learned from Leo. Then Leo's ex-wife arrives, and the round of bitter, sexy barbs really gets going.
Fassbinder based Water Drops on his own teenage affair with an older man, but what's surprising is how clearly the story understands old Leo. Bernard Giraudeau plays him as stolidly bourgeois in everything but his capacity to inflict hurt.
Franz is an artist, but so far his main qualification for the job is petulance.
In the end, it's Vera, Leo's ex-wife, who offers much of the film's riches. Ozon plucks a character twist from Fassbinder's much later film In A Year Of 13 Moons, and uses it to flesh out Vera, and the whole play.
Anyone who wonders what the world would be like if Fassbinder had been born French need only watch Ozon's debut feature, Sitcom. It's got all the master's domestic cruelty, but with an added whimsy unknown in Munich.
Ozon finds a more sober, consistent tone for Water Drops. In fact, charting a path between the younger and elder Fassbinder proves a maturing exercise for Ozon himself.