Frantz is an atypical film in François Ozon's canon, even he admits, jokingly calling it his most ‘chaste' movie to-date “with just a small kiss between the two characters.” But while Frantz may not have the overt sexuality of much of Ozon's oeuvre (returning to the more weighty tone and themes of 2000's masterpiece Under the Sand) his strength in storytelling gracefully connects with Maurice Rostand's play written almost a century ago and Ernest Lubitsch's film, Broken Lullaby, from 1932.
It's a bold move, indeed, for one of France's most influential and prolific film directors, who never known for playing it straight with formalist filmmaking brings blossoming colour into the black and white wake of post WWI Germany.
While mourning the loss of her fiancé Frantz in the trenches, Anna (newcomer Paul Beer) sees Frenchman Adrien (Pierre Niney) placing flowers on his grave. Quickly becoming entwined in both her and her in-law lives, Adrien soon reveals a secret that changes everything.
Candid magazine met up with François Ozon to talk grief, loss, lies, nationalism and wartime drama.
The film is predominantly about dealing with grief, what's almost a countrywide grief in this case, and a grief that happens to coincide with the rise of nationalism in Germany. Why did you choose to go back to that time period to explore this topic?
The first idea was not to make a film about war and grief in this context, the first idea was to make just a film about secrets and lies. After discovering the play by Rostand I realised the historical background was very important so I tried to be very realistic with what happened at this time. It's very ambiguous and paradoxical to use lies and I thought it could be interesting in this time of obsession with truth and transparency to speak about a concept which can sometimes in difficult contexts help us to survive.
You continued on Rostand's play, writing the film's second half.
The book, the play and the film, finished with a kind of happy ending. In the film of Ernest Lubitsch, Adrien becomes part of the family and it's the end of the story. For me, it was impossible to keep that, because today it would be ironic. It was important to develop a second part to the story. That's why I had the idea to make this long journey for Anna to France to discover where Adrien is coming from and to build all the story like a mirror between France and Germany between the two families. It was a way to show through the suffering and pain from German and French that we are the same. And to show the two country could be friends and not just enemies. So yes, I tried to develop the story this way. To have a kind of reflection of each German scene with a French scene, to give you the opportunity to think about nationalism of course and about French and German culture.
Was there any message to contemporary times?
I'm not a director who tries to give messages, I try to ask questions. I want the audience to be free to think what they want. I want to make open movies, to have open endings. I didn't know when I made this film that Donald Trump would become president that Brexit would happen. But I realise now that all the world has changed the vision of the film. Which is interesting, because it's always interesting to look back on the past and to not to repeat the same mistakes. So if the film can be helpful it would be great, but you know cinema doesn't change the world, but it can help you to understand the world better.
Anna and Adrien they both share this kind of profound connection through the loss of Frantz. They both have this profound loss and desire. There's almost a romantic longing for Frantz from them both?
There is a kind of a manipulation of the audience, like Adrien, because he's lying about his relationship with Frantz, and I wanted to play with that. What interested me was to show that the lies of Adrien in a certain way were telling a part of the truth. Because behind a lie there is always a part of desire.
Can I ask you how I met Paula Beer the actress who plays Anna?
I didn't know the young German actresses. So I had a big casting. She was perfect because she was clever and beautiful, she was just 20 years old. You know it's always a risk when you give a part to a young actress who is not famous and who doesn't yet have big experience. But I had a feeling after the test that the chemistry could work between the two. I was very lucky to find her, she has really the film on her shoulders.
It reminded me of a film by another director, I don't know Ernest Lubitsch, but Letters from an Unknown Woman by Max Ophuls. Another film of longing, misdirection and letters, that's equally tragic.
Yes, I really enjoyed this movie and it was an adaptation of Stefan Zweig. It's funny because to many of the Germans had the same feeling of seeing an adaptation of a book by Stefan Sweig. Because it's about the subconscious, he made many books about Europe, and France and Germany. So… of course this kind of mood.
Le Suicide by Manet becomes a visual motif throughout Frantz.
The painting in the Rostand's play was by another painter but not Manet, Gustave Courbet. It had a young man with his head thrown back. I looked for the painting because it didn't give the title, and when I found it it was beautiful and very romantic but just had the feeling that he was sleeping. But I was looking for a violent image, so I searched some other paintings until I discovered Le Suicide by Manet. I was shocked because it's not the type of painting we associate with Manet. It's very brutal, very frontal and I really enjoyed it. I knew it would be strong to show it first in black and white, because in black and white you don't really see the violence of the painting. And in colour it is very strong because you can see the blood on the shirt. So I had the feeling that the painting will be like a metaphor for all the film, because you know many young soldiers after the first world war committed suicide, and all the war was like a suicide for Europe in many ways.
And in the end there's some hope?
Ah, yes, it depends on people. It depends on your own optimism or pessimism. So you are an optimist.
Words by Cormac O'Brien
Frantz is out in cinemas on the May 5, 2017