At his best, François Ozon can be either a keen observer of humanity at its most stressed-out and self-immolating (Under the Sand, Time to Leave), or he can toss out self-aware provocations like spitballs (Swimming Pool, 5x2). I don't know that I have a set idea of Ozon at his worst, because until Ricky I don't think I'd seen anything of his that counted as a failure. But here we are.

Ricky comes in two distinct parts: the first one is wholly successful, the second one is flawed but not without its interesting elements, and the movement from one part to the other is handled with all the grace of a dachshund on wet ice. It's not clear to me how much I should actually say about the second part, since within the film itself this is presented as surprising and even suspenseful, but all of the film's pre-release press has made no small effort to give away the ending. But let me start off with the beginning, anyway-

A harried woman named Katie (Alexandra Lamy) is having a chat with an unseen social worker, in one of those supremely European opening shots that fixes itself as a close-up on the subject and stays for several deathless minutes, daring us to look away from what is quickly becoming an unbearably intense and sincere moment of confession. Katie has two children, and the man in her life has recently vanished, and she can't manage things on her own, and though it pains her to even say this, maybe she could out the younger child, Ricky, in a foster home? Just until she can get her life back together? It would pain her to lose her son, but there's just no money and no time anymore. A great damn opening, is what this is, cranking the stakes up to 11 right from the word "go", and Lamy is tremendously believable as a worn-out, desperate woman. Then the movie jumps back several months (if my math works out, it's actually more than a year, and this is a tiny hiccup of continuity that shouldn't have bothered me as much as it did), promising that we shall now get to see the process by which a sensible single mother with a very bright pre-teen daughter, Lisa (Mélusine Mayance) should turn into the quivering wreck of that opening.

Oddly enough, having staked so much on that bravura transition, Ozon never returns to that exact moment in forward-moving time, and we never see Katie in remotely the same wracked state of her introduction. Upon lengthy consideration, I have decided that this is not a flaw, but a storytelling shortcut: the opening scene tells us a) that Katie will be that upset and b) that Katie is that upset, when the time comes, and so we do not need to be reminded of it. In fact, if you really want to be that way, you could say that it's quite a clever flipping of the audience's expectations.

Anyway, the plot: Katie works on an assembly line, and one day she meets a Spanish immigrant named Paco (Sergi López), and as people will, they fall in love. Lisa is put-out at first, naturally enough, and the first 40 minutes or so present a very remarkable vision of a family being pulled together, somewhat against its will. Ozon cribs a great deal from what I've come to think of as the Dardennes School of filmmaking: lots of handheld camera, lengthy close-ups and medium shots, a generally grainy aesthetic that makes even nice, pleasant spaces seem ramshackle and worn out - and Katie's apartment is not terribly nice or pleasant.

After some time, Katie ends up pregnant, and gives birth to a baby boy named Ricky (Arthur Peyret), and here is where things start to become really fascinating. Both Paco and Lisa start to feel abandoned after Ricky comes on the scene, and so they rather naturally if unexpectedly form a unified front, finally starting to develop the kind of father-daughter relationship that Katie always hoped for, but only at the expense of having a present wife and mother. Things in the apartment start to get heated and angry, finally reaching the point of no return when Katie returns home from her first day back at work to find Ricky has a large bruise on his back. She automatically blames Paco, and there's an uneasy possibility that she's right - we didn't see him hit the baby, but the editing has been so elliptical throughout that it's perfectly imaginable that such a scene was just passed over, and we do know that Paco had been short-tempered with Ricky that same day. Even so, his outrage at this accusation seems pretty credible, and he storms out of the apartment.

I for one was pretty comfortably in the film's pocket at this point, finding it a good if not masterpiece-class depiction of marital strife, and then the next development shocked me out of the film entirely, even though I knew it was coming. I think that I will not say what happens, for it is easy to find out if you're curious. Let us say that the plot abruptly abandons the realistic and lower-class to become something very symbolic and fantastic (that is, fantasy-based), with a peculiar but not ineffective religious undertone. It's not necessarily the case that this half of the film is bungled, but it isn't matched well with the first half at all, and the first half is, at any rate, much more interesting. Ozon also manages to cheapen most of the drama with some magical realism that wanders about and does nothing but wrap up the more human plotlines of the first half in a manner that seems much too pat for my tastes (the ending manages to replicate, in content and in tone, my all-time least favorite ending in the canon of Steven Spielberg. And when you're François Ozon, and you manage to accidentally copy one of the more maudlin bits in Spielberg, you have absolutely taken a wrong turn).

The last thirty minutes soured me enough on the movie that I started thinking more critically about some of the formal elements throughout that I'd been content mostly to ignore: primarily the aggressive score by Philippe Rombi, which has the bad taste to suggest that Ricky is a Swimming Pool-esque thriller; and the editing veers from brilliantly vague to needlessly confusing a bit too often, mostly in the middle. Contrast that two the mostly effective drama of the first half, anchored by two great performances: Lamy, and young Mayance, playing the petulance of a girl confronted with a new dad and a new brother that she doesn't want or need with a tremendous degree of maturity and elegance - she essentially becomes the lead after a time, and bears the film so well that one would never believe that this was her film debut. All in all, that's enough to tip the film just a bit above average, though still not enough that it's not, in the end, a disappointment.