Prolific French auteur François Ozon is back with post-WWI period drama Frantz. He discusses the thrill of shooting in black-and-white and why he rarely repeats himself
The one consistent factor in François Ozon’s career has been his capacity to surprise. Frantz is the prolific director’s 16th feature in less than two decades, and while his genre-hopping oeuvre looks incredibly eclectic on the surface, encompassing an extraordinary range of styles and tones, there’s a common authorial voice and thematic thread uniting these films that ensures they all feel distinctively his. Ozon’s explorations of relationships have been alternately playful, romantic and haunted by the spectre of death, and he is capable of delivering a satisfying narrative while subverting genre expectations and commenting on the act of storytelling itself. In this light, Frantz feels like a natural fit for the director, even as it marks the biggest stylistic departure of his career to date.
Set in Germany in the aftermath of the Great War, Frantz is the story of Anna (Paula Beer), a young woman who discovers the mysterious Adrien (Pierre Niney) laying flowers at the grave of Frantz, her late fiancé. She takes him into the family home when she learns of his deep friendship with Frantz, and the romance that blossoms between them is perhaps predictable but, typically for Ozon, the path that the narrative follows is not. “The challenge for me was to tell a story with a twist in the middle of the film,” Ozon explains when we catch up with him during the London Film Festival. “That was quite dangerous but exciting for me, because it's unusual. The twist is usually at the end of the film. In the case of this story, I wanted the film to be in a mirror structure, between the two countries and the two languages, and yes it was a real challenge.”
Frantz is an adaptation of Maurice Rostand’s 1930 play L'Homme que j'ai tué but the director also credits Broken Lullaby, the 1931 screen version directed by Ernst Lubitsch. “A friend of mine told me about this play written in the 20s about the First World War, and I really enjoyed it. I loved the story about this French guy who goes to Germany to put some roses on the grave of a German soldier,” he says. “I began to work on it but I realised Lubitsch made an adaptation, so I was very disappointed and depressed. I watched Lubitsch's film, and I really enjoyed the film, but I realised that this film was in the perspective of the French guy and my idea was to tell the story from the perspective of the German girl. So I realised my film would be quite different.”
Ozon eventually appropriated a powerful scene invented by Lubitsch for his film, when Frantz’s grieving father chastises a group of crowing Germans and reminds them that the French's pain over losing their sons is just as deep as their own. Beyond the central love story, Frantz is a film about prejudice and people learning to overcome their deep-rooted nationalism to see the humanity of others, and as a result it reflects very contemporary concerns.
Did Ozon realise he was writing a piece that would chime with 21st-century Europe in such a striking way? “It was not my first idea, but as I worked on the historical context I realised that there are a lot of things that resonate with today so I developed that, especially when she goes to France and we realise that nationalists exist in France too,” he explains. “I wrote the script just after the terrorist attack on Charlie [Hebdo], and I had all that in mind. You know the scene in the café when there is La Marseillaise? I wanted to give the opportunity to the French to hear this song in another way, with the violence of the lyrics and the context of the war, from the point of view of the German girl.”
Inevitably, any film that features the singing of La Marseillaise in a café instantly recalls Casablanca – in Ozon’s words, “It awakens your cinephile memories” – and Frantz is very much a film rooted in cinema history. Ozon, who so often fills the frame with colour, made the abrupt decision to shoot in black-and-white just before production began, and the gamble paid off, with Pascal Marti’s 35mm cinematography giving Frantz the look of a classic from a bygone age. “It was very surprising for me because when I'm shooting I'm watching my actors in colour, and when I go to the monitor to see them it was in black-and-white, and I think, 'Oh my god! It is a film of Max Ophüls, or Dreyer, or Bergman!'” he says with evident delight. “Watching Paula in black-and-white, it was like I had Gene Tierney in my film, and the father has a very beautiful, strong face and he looked like Max von Sydow in Bergman movies. It was perfect.”
Nevertheless, Ozon couldn’t entirely let go of his complete visual palette, and at key points in Frantz the monochrome image is augmented with beautiful hints of colour. “It was difficult for me to forget colour because I love colour, and usually I use it as part of the mise-en-scène,” he says. “I decided to shoot in black-and-white to involve the audience more in the story, but I couldn't get my head around the idea of not filming in colour. When we saw the location it was so beautiful I thought it was a pity not to show it in colour, so I decided to put in some colours in moments, like the blood coming back into the veins of the characters.”
The result is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen, although one wonders how many will have the opportunity in this age of limited release windows and streaming platforms. “I'm sad but what can I do? I can't fight against everybody, you know,” Ozon says when this issue is raised. “I know that my film will maybe be seen on a telephone very soon, so we don't have the choice, but it doesn't stop us from trying to make the most beautiful film and always thinking of the big screen. In France I think there is still cinephilia and people still go to cinemas, and maybe less in the UK.”
In fact, Frantz has already done good business in France, although Ozon admits he hasn’t always enjoyed an amicable relationship with audiences and critics. “I think I was lucky from the start to be hated and loved at the same time,” he says. “From the start some people enjoyed my films and some people said I was terrible, so I have always had that, I have never had a consensus. I am used to that and in a certain way it's better than indifference.” Doesn’t the criticism hurt? “Of course, it is difficult for me when everybody says your film is shit!” he says with a laugh. “I say, ‘Maybe in time, you know...’”
Ozon is not somebody who tends to waste time reflecting on the past, however. As soon as he’s finished one project he’s ready to push off into new territory. “After a strong experience – because to shoot and make a film is something very powerful, and takes a lot of energy and work – I don't want to repeat the same thing. So yes, of course I want to take another direction, but it's not a conscious choice. I think it comes very naturally. After a drama you want to go to comedy, you know. It's quite natural and I follow my unconscious.”
At the time of our meeting, he was already looking ahead to the cameras rolling again, although he wouldn’t drop more than a few hints about what he had planned. “I begin a new shooting in two weeks and it will be a thriller, in French,” he tells me as we walk to the door. “See you next year!”
(Postscript: That film turned out to be L'Amant Double, which competes for the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes. We can't wait to see it.)