“It’s hard on my own with two kids. I can’t manage.” Plainly exhausted and not a little dejected, Katie (Alexandra Lamy) ticks off her frustrations. Her social worker listener remains offscreen as the camera ponders Katie’s face. Advised to file a declaration of marital abandonment (“He’s Spanish,” she doesn’t quite explain) and ask for financial aid, she wonders whether she should place her new baby in foster care, just for a while. “He cries a lot,” she sighs. “I’m at my wit’s end.”
On this sad if mundane note, Ricky turns back “several months.” Opening 16 December at New York’s IFC Center and on IFC On Demand, François Ozon’s film might best be understood as a kind of prickly fable, or maybe a cautionary tale. It’s still dark outside when seven-year-old Lisa (Mélusine Mayance) wakes to her alarm, then heads to Katie’s bedroom. “Time to get up, mommy,” the child whispers. “Ah,” Katie mumbles, “I don’t want to work today.” It’s easy to understand why, once she drops Lisa at school and arrives at the cosmetics factory where she works on an assembly line, her face in a mask and her hair gathered under a plastic cap. It’s dreary work, her colleagues are faceless, and her hours are long.
On this particular morning, she takes her cigarette break with Paco (Sergi López, elusively creepy as usual), and their exchange of terse smiles leads directly to a bathroom-stall liaison, her moans sounding over a long, static, and frankly bleak shot of the sinks. Though they agree the next day that this minute of ardor was a mistake, they begin to date, that is, they share a decent dinner followed by more passionate pawing in her apartment building’s hallway, surrounded by flaking paint and grimy graffiti tags. Cut to Lisa’s face in the dark, listening to sex sounds from the next room.
You know where this very regular story is headed. So does Katie. Some months later, she’s given birth to Ricky (Arthur Peyret), Paco’s working the night shift, and Lisa’s feeling increasingly set aside by the new family unit (when the girl spots Paco flirting with another woman she doesn’t tell her mother, an indication of Lisa’s efforts to sort through the intricacies of adult behaviors). After he stays home with Ricky and the infant turns up with bruises on his shoulders, Katie accuses Paco of abuse—maybe dropping the baby, maybe worse. You’re aware she’s wrong, that dad has been tender and sweet for the duration, but you can’t begin to imagine what happens next. When Paco leaves in a huff and Katie shifts her focus from her own betrayal and loneliness to raising her two children alone, the bruises are revealed for what they are—the start of Ricky’s wings sprouting.
Once the movie takes this turn, your impulse might be to define it. But it is resolutely—and quite refreshingly—shifting and un-neat, sometimes fantasy, sometimes horror, and a other times melodrama. At first Ricky’s wobbly chicken-skinned appendages are ugly and not a little Cronenbergian. He’s landing atop cupboards, smacking into windows, and frightening his mother (who comes up with a helmet for him to wear, in case of flight mishaps). Soon, however, they grow feathers, and he’s fluttering around Lisa’s bedroom with a strangely sanguine, even beatific look on his face. As she and Lisa bond over their secret, the family unit turns both surreal and serene, not to mention special: “Keep quiet at school,” mom warns Lisa, “Don’t talk about Ricky.” Lisa nods, somehow understanding.
But just as they seem to have found a rhythm, a trip to the market and accidental revelation of Ricky’s permutation—the “flying baby” is captured on video—alters the shape of their lives once again. Now the press throngs outside their apartment, Paco shows up with hopes of octo-mom-style freakshow profits, and Katie’s facing increasingly unpleasant choices.
It’s not clear when or if Katie’s story turns internal, whether her solution to a prosaic problem is imaginary, mystical or even spiritual. But really, the source of the wings doesn’t matter, and neither does their reality. However you situate them, they serve as simultaneous signs of desperation and hope. Ricky’s up-in-the-air antics are by turns comedic and weird, charming and perverse, with cuts to Katie’s upturned face—worried and even embarrassed, then increasingly aglow—suggesting both her efforts to participate or control, and her complete giving over to circumstance. As the brilliant and inexplicable baby serves as metaphor for a general working mother’s dire condition, he figures apprehension as much as faith.