François Ozon Discusses His Twisty, Anti-Nationalist, Post-WWI Cautionary Tale, ‘Frantz’

Ozon on exhuming a twice-told narrative and looking at it through the lens of nearly a century of perspective.

Perhaps you, like me, saw Swimming Pool as a teenager and were adolescently scandalized in a really cool and mind-bending way. And although for this reason writer/director François Ozon is most often affiliated with films that one might deem “naughty” — twisty, sexual, sometimes creepy, sometimes campy works like Sitcom, 8 Women, The New Girlfriend, Water Drops on Burning Rocks and In the House — he also has a brimming back catalog of quieter movies that examine every contour of grief. Under the Sand saw Charlotte Rampling mourning the loss — and apparition — of her husband of 25 years; Time to Leave saw a terminally ill man coming to terms an impending loss of self; The Refuge was about a woman who seeks solace after finding out she’s pregnant with the baby of her partner who’s just died of an overdose; 5×2 examined the loss of love in reverse order; and finally, today, we have Frantz, a post-WWI melodrama that follows a young German woman, Anna (Paula Beer), whose fiancé died in the trenches.

Frantz is based both on a play by Edmond Rostand — whose title I’ll avoid, and you should too, because it is an immense spoiler — and the first film based on that play, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 drama, Broken Lullabies. (You should likewise avoid looking too deeply into that film, for the same reasons.) All three works begin with the same narrative (with different character names, and one key reveal withheld in Ozon’s film): they start a German village, where a mysterious French man (Adrien, in Ozon’s film, played by Pierre Niney) has come to visit the grave of Frantz, Anna’s dead fiancé. After much nationalistic pushback, Adrien eventually becomes close to Frantz’s family, regaling them with stories of how he and Frantz knew each other at University before the war. The family, with Anna at its core, starts seeing him as a surrogate — something that becomes abundantly clear when the matriarch gives Adrien a violin to play, telling him that she thinks of it as her dead son’s heart. But the actual nature of Adrien’s relationship with Frantz might not be so easily accepted by the family. And God, I wish I could say more.

Ozon, an openly gay director, has a refreshing nonchalance when it comes to elements of queerness in film — a penchant for sexualizing the male form to non-heteronormative ends, and for consistently, and without any “exclusively gay moment” empowerment hype — writing queer characters. For much of the first half of Frantz, there are pervasively queer implications — which jar with our cinematic affiliations of period melodrama. Those implications are at the core of the film’s meditation on shame and grief, but not in the ways you might expect. And again, I really wish I could say more.

But I can say that it’s after this first half of the film in Germany that Frantz pulls away from being a Lubitsch and/or Rostand adaptation, and in its second half, after a big reveal, becomes a story all of its own. The film is not nearly as self-serious as your standard period piece and/or war film, and that it’s in its narrative  playfulness — which feels like residue from the other kind of Ozon film — that you’ll find its most serious implications. Never really holding back on twists, over-the-top symbolism, emotional saturation, and surprisingly philosophical queer winking, Ozon has created a heavy period piece with the directorial levity that recalls his pulpier contemporary dramedies.

I spoke to the director about what it meant to be exhuming this old, twice-told story through the lens of nearly a century of perspective on the burgeoning nationalism that all three stories examine — bringing it back at a time when across Europe (and of course America), history likewise feels like it’s repeating itself.

There is an expectation of seriousness and formalism when it comes to war movies, but for your movies there’s more of an expectation of mischief and playfulness. How did you initially intend to approach genre here?

I wanted to tell the story differently from the play and from Lubitsch’s film. In the play and original film, from the first minute you know something [that’s withheld in Frantz]. For me it was obvious that we had to keep the secret, telling the story rather from the point of view of the loser of the war — the Germans, particularly the point of view of Anna. I wanted the audience to ask why this man came to Germany — what’s his mystery, his secret? This suspense and expectation [were necessary], and I knew that because of my other films, the audience would have some special expectations about the relationship between Frantz and Adrien. I knew that would happen — I didn’t want to escape it. I knew it would be complex and ambiguous. But the big difference from the Lubitsch movie [where everything is divulged at the beginning] is to have this secret revealed in the middle of the film. And usually you have a twist at the end of the film — not in the middle! The script was cut in two, so I decided to build the story as a mirror between the part in Germany and the part in France. I knew it wouldn’t be a comedy — it’d be more dramatic than other films of mine. I wanted to be very close to the character of Anna, to follow her feelings, to follow her journey. It was the goal of the story. Often the tone comes from the story; here it was difficult to make something more ironic or cynical, because there are people suffering in a very difficult period of time.

The English title of the film is Broken Lullabies, but the French title and the name of the play essentially give away the secret in the middle of your film. If someone casually cites the play by name in an article, it ruins that structural shift you made. 

I know! That was a big drama for me! But the good thing was that the Lubitsch film is not well known, and the play is totally forgotten. When I mention the film in France, I always say Broken Lullaby, but some journalists want to show that they know everything!

Both the Lubitsch film and Rostand play it’s based on take place right after World War I, but the play was conceived in the late ’20s, and performed in the early ’30s, and the movie came out in ’32. These artists could, at that point, detect a swell in nationalism and seemingly could look back at and comment on the seeds of it. But in the early ’30s, they didn’t have the perspective that you do to know the horrors that growing nationalism would accomplish. How does that change your vision of the narrative?

It changes everything, and it’s why I added the second part of the film in France. The Lubitsch film and Rostand play have a kind of happy ending — Adrien takes the place of Frantz, and the family accepts him, and it’s the end of the film. For me it was impossible today to have this kind of ironic happy ending. I wanted to build the story like a reflection — to have this big part of Adrien’s journey to Germany and then make the same thing happen with Anna. She decides to go to France, to find Adrien, and forgive him. And it was a way to show that the pains in Germany and France are the same, and the rise of nationalism and fear of foreigners were the same, and that the pains are the same across borders.

In your movie, the younger generation has had to suffer through the destructive ignorance of their elders — the fathers are depicted as proudly, and then repentantly — having sent their sons off to war. But the central parent characters [played by Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber] turn out to be lovely. How did you balance generational guilt and the desire to make warm, rich characters?

I don’t know if it’s ignorance but rather tradition. We had three wars between Germany and France, so it’s like a tradition! There’s a lot of evolution with the father; he’s a doctor, and at first refuses to treat the French guy, because he’s French, and he’s anti-French by principle. But he has a real evolution. And the scene where he goes to the Gasthaus with the other guys and you see that he’s changed his point of view comes from Lubitsch — I thought it was beautiful and decided to keep it. It was very strong to have this father who is now able to defend this French guy who came to put flowers on the grave of his son. There’s a message in the film, to show that a link between two countries could happen between the culture, through the knowledge of the language. Thats why culture, painting, music, allusions to poetry are important in the film. They’re ways of bringing people together.

Speaking of art’s transcendence here  — I’m curious about the works you did pick to display in the film. Le Suicidé by Manet is a heavy presence here; how did that come to be such a recurring symbol?

In the play, there was a reference to a painting by Gustave Corbeille, with a young man with his head thrown back; the painting was described in the play, but there was no title. So I did some research, and I found a Corbeille painting — I don’t know if it was the right one — but it was too romantic for me, too beautiful. You had the feeling the young man was sleeping. And in my imagination, I was thinking something more violent, more shocking. And I did some research, trying to find paintings from the era or just before. And I discovered this Manet painting; he’s the most important painter in France, but this was totally like the Lubitsch movie — nobody knew about it. When I shot in the Louvre, I met some specialists, and they didn’t know the painting either. And I was quite surprised by the painting, because it was still very impressionistic, but violent. And I knew the film would move between black and white and color. I thought it’d be interesting to show it first in black and white — with the impressionist touch, you don’t see exactly what’s in the frame this way. But in color, everything becomes stronger and more violent, because there is the red of the blood.

Another work that takes on new life in your movie is the Marseillaise. As an American who’s never paid much attention to the anthem’s lyrics but has heard the song all over the place, it’s never seemed particularly sinister — more goofily triumphant and familiar.

For the French it’s the same thing. We’re so used to hearing the Marseillaise all the time, it was important to hear it differently, to hear the lyrics in the historical context of war. You hear it differently. There’s this young German girl who hears the song for the first time. She hears the lyrics and realizes it’s very nationalistic and violent. It’s the same thing in Germany when Adrien hears [“Die Wacht am Rhein”], but it’s more about territory, it’s less violent.

How did you create, through filming, this scene that deliberately alienates us from something so familiar, its kind of a knee-jerk affiliation with victory?  

I had in mind a scene in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. It’s a beautiful scene — “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” I watched it again, but I had the memory that we don’t realize until the end of the song that the singer has the Nazi sign — but that’s not the case. When you see the scene from almost the beginning, he has the sign.  With the scene with the Marseillaise, I wanted to have an evolution. It begins as something touching. And suddenly you can see the violence of people standing up, the faces becoming very aggressive. So I wanted this structure, and the violence of the song augmenting step by step, and the Anna’s reactions were very important to have.

We become very physically aware of Anna and Adrien’s vulnerabilities when Anna’s in France or Adrien’s in Germany, because they seemed marked by their stigmatized nationalities in either place; how did you pick actors who could embody these places?

For Adrien, Pierre looks very French. I didn’t know German actresses. But my cliché was to look for a blonde girl — and when I met Paula she was perfect for the part, she was very strong, and had a lot of maturity; she was just 20 years old, she was able to speak in French, she was perfect, but she was not blonde. I asked her to dye her hair, and then she became blonde, and I asked her to go back! At the same time she looks like Romy Schneider, who was the favorite actor of the 70s in France, and she was Austrian.

You flip the perspective of the original play and film, focusing on the Anna’s arc and point of view more than Adrien’s. There’s a lot of unexplored territory as far as women’s war and postwar experiences go onscreen. What drew you more to the Anna character here?

I thought the character of Anna is more complex than Adrien. Adrien wants to tell the truth and is destroyed by the war. I had the feeling the character of Adrien doesn’t have a real evolution. In comparison to Anna, who has a big journey from the start of the film to the end. She goes through different steps and a lot of emotions. And for me very often it’s easier to identify myself with women, maybe because women are more often made victims, and have to be stronger than men to keep their freedom and become themselves. I like all these different steps of Anna’s evolution; it was important for me to have hope at the end of the film. With Adrien, I always felt it was impossible to have hope. He’s not ready; he was too destroyed, he’s lost in his sexuality and his identity. Anna, though, is able to turn the page.