François Ozon on 'Frantz,' his Daring WWI Saga
François Ozon is one of today's most intriguing filmmakers whose movies often deal with themes of longing and repressed desire, usually touching on gay themes if not a gay sensibility.
Originality and exquisite artistry mark his work from his first full length feature, "Sitcom," a surreal tale of unleashed passion, to the dark comedy musical "8 Women," where he somehow assembled a cornucopia of great French actresses including Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant & Romy Schneider AND got them to sing! Most recently he directed "The New Girlfriend," a witty satire on accepted notions of sexuality.
In his latest jewel, "Frantz," Ozon examines the scars left on the survivors of the First World War. In a small German town, a mysterious Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney), is seen at the grave of a young German soldier named Frantz Hoffmeister. Adrian soon fibs his way into the lives of Frantz's mourning parents (Ernst Stötzner & Maria Gruber) as well as Frantz's lovely fiancé, Anna (Paula Beer), by claiming to be the dead soldier's good friend.
Adrian becomes a healing presence in all three lives and his true relationship to Frantz is left a guessing game until midway through the film when the audience (and a key character) learns the truth, which I will not reveal here.
A film about lies
The genesis of "Frantz" came from both a play and a film. "In a period obsessed with truth and transparency, I've been wanting to do a film about lies," Ozon explains. "As a student and admirer of Eric Rohmer, I've always found lies to be exciting fodder for storytelling and filmmaking. So I was mulling it over when a friend told me about a play written by Maurice Rostand right after World War I. I investigated further and learned that the play had been adapted for the cinema in 1931 by Ernst Lubitsch under the title 'Broken Lullaby.'"
Notions of besting a Lubitsch's film dogged the director, but he decided to take his own unique approach: "In the play and the film, we know (the Frenchman's) secret from the beginning... I was more interested in the lie than the guilt. Lubitsch's film is beautiful and well worth seeing through the prism of the pacifist, idealistic context of the post-war era. I included several of his scenes. It's his least well-known film, his only drama, and it bombed at the box office. His direction is admirable and highly inventive as always. But it's the film of an American director of German descent who didn't know a second world war was looming on the horizon. He made an optimistic film of reconciliation. The First World War was such a bloodbath that many politicians and artists in France and Germany spoke out loudly for pacifism. My approach, as a Frenchman who did not experience either of those two wars, was obviously going to be different."
In both the play and the film the lie is never revealed and the Frenchman actually takes the place of the parent's dead son. Here, Ozon deviates from the source material. "In my film," he states, "Adrien also tries to become part of the family but at a certain point, his lie and his guilt weigh too heavily on him and he tells Anna everything. In contrast to the Lubitsch film, Anna can only accept his lie after a long personal journey, which I explore in this second part and which begins with Adrien leaving and Anna falling into a depression."
Ozon has long been interested in Germany and even adapted Rainer Werner Fassbinder's play, "Water Drops on Burning Rocks," several years ago. "Frantz" allows him to pursue his fascination with German history and culture. "I have a big link with Germany... Germany was the first foreign country I went to as a child... For a long while I've been wanting to explore the fraternal bond these two European peoples share, the friendship between them. This film provided the perfect opportunity."
A choice was made to deliberately alter the POV of the original. "With this story it was very important to tell it from the point of view of the Germans because Lubitsch and the play were told from the point of view of the French... and it would be a beautiful answer to tell the story, as a French director, from the point of view of the Germans... And because very often the German (is portrayed as) a bad guy in French movies," Ozon says.
The director prides himself on constantly challenging himself. "Subconsciously, a lot of my obsessions no doubt crept into this film," he shares. "But tackling them in a different language, with different actors, in places other than France, forces me to reinvent myself and hopefully gives those themes new power, a new dimension. There were a lot of exciting challenges in this film. I'd never filmed war before, a battle scene, a small German town, Paris in black and white, in German... It was very important to me to tell this story from... the losing side, through the eyes of those who were humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, so I could illustrate how Germany at that time was fertile ground for spreading nationalism."
Watching "Frantz" without having seen the original film and being familiar with Ozon's work, there are many moments in the narrative where it feels like the big reveal of Adrian's relationship to Frantz might have gone in an entirely different direction. Ozon did not choose the more provocative direction but he certainly toys with the savvy viewer. "I loved that ambiguity and tried to inject little details over the course of the film to get the audience wondering about the nature of Adrien's feelings for Frantz. He has experienced real trauma and grown to love Frantz. Is it brotherly love? Or is it a mirror effect, because he could see his own anguish in Frantz's eyes? Or could it be passionate love? One of the film's great strengths is how, beneath its classical beauty, it keeps us guessing about Adrien."
"Frantz" is in limited release in theaters. To find out when the film opens in a theater near you, www.musicboxfilms.com/frantz-movies-152.php:visit the film's website.
Watch the trailer to "Frantz":