Director Francois Ozon’s latest film seeks answers in a landscape littered with deceit, writes Philippa Hawker
Francois Ozon is interested in lies, he says, because they are a means of arriving at the truth. His new movie, Frantz, which opens in Australia next month, is a tale of secrets, longings and losses, shot principally in austere, elegant black-and-white. It has misdirection and deception at its centre, but it’s also a story of discovery and growth.
It is set in Germany in the aftermath of World War I. A young woman, Anna (Paula Beer), whose fiance, Frantz, was killed in action, discovers that a stranger is putting flowers on her fiance’s grave.
She meets him and is intrigued by him; he is a Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney), who knew Frantz when they both lived in Paris. When she judges that the time is right, she introduces him to Frantz’s grieving parents, with whom she lives. They make him welcome, but it’s a difficult situation: in a climate of postwar bitterness and resentment, his presence in the small town is contentious.
There is more to Adrien’s story than at first appears, Anna learns, finding herself caught up in falsehoods and half-truths, unspoken feelings and necessary fictions.
One of Ozon’s friends gave him the idea for the film, suggesting he read a play by Maurice Rostand written just after World War I. Ozon was immediately intrigued, and had begun to work on the adaptation before discovering it had already been done, and by no less a figure than Ernst Lubitsch, in a little-known drama called Broken Lullaby (1932).
He realised, however, there were many things he wanted to do differently. Rostand’s play and Lubitsch’s film make certain things clear from the beginning but Ozon prefers to keep revelations in check. Expectations are reversed, things are not always what they seem.
Yet it’s not a film about plot twists; it’s more concerned with emotion, interpretation and perspective. This is true for the characters and for the spectators, Ozon says. “I think it’s always important to give this opportunity to the audience to change their opinion on the film and have a new perspective on the story.”
His film also deals with the need for lies, “in a metaphoric way, like fiction”. There are characters in Frantz who are sustained by acts of deception, “and it’s a way to speak about cinema, our need for fiction, our need to believe in the story on the screen. We know everything is fake, we know they are actors, but we want to believe.”
Ozon has transformed and extended the Frantz story out of historical necessity, he says. Rostand and Lubitsch created their works unaware there would be another world war not long afterwards. Their conclusions would have been “too naive” for a contemporary audience, Ozon says. “So I worked on something I felt was more honest, for the story and for today.”
The original play and film focus on the point of view of Adrien, the Frenchman; Ozon decided to explore the world of Anna, the German girl. Much of the movie is in German, a first for Ozon. He learned the language at school and was brought up with an interest in German culture. He wanted his story to link the two cultures and two characters.
As Adrien, he cast one of France’s most sought-after young actors. Niney, who played the title role in Jalil Lespert’s biopic Yves Saint Laurent, and was one of the youngest members of the Comedie Francaise, has a gift for physical comedy and emotional vulnerability. For Frantz, he had to acquire new skills, Ozon says. “He learned German and the violin, and to dance the waltz, so he had a lot of work to do.”
For the role of Anna, Ozon did a casting call for German actresses who could speak a little French. Beer, he says, “was so close to what I was dreaming of. She is clever and very emotional, and understands what scenes need. I remember the first scene we shot was in church, when she makes her confession, and she had her tears at the exact time I wanted.”
Beer’s first memory of performance is playing a dragon in a school play at the age of six. At 16 she joined Germany’s leading youth ensemble and was spotted by a director who cast her in her first film. She found out about the auditions for Frantz while she was on holiday: from first meeting to casting was a matter of weeks.
Ozon did extensive rehearsals with the two leads, wanting to develop a sense of chemistry between them. The pair helped each other with their respective languages, Beer says. “Pierre was great. You feel that he is an ensemble player, he is really with the people he’s working with. So open-minded.”
Ozon might be a director who knows exactly what he wants, but he’s more flexible than Beer expected. She was surprised, she says, at the freedom he was prepared to give her. “‘You can try things out,’ he told me, ‘and if it’s the wrong direction I’ll say stop, and lead you to another one.’ He has an easy way to tell stories, but there is much underneath.”
It’s a rich and subtle performance. She put extensive research and thought into the figure of Anna and the emotional travails she endured, starting out as a young girl defined by loss but ending the film in a very different place. She didn’t draw conscious parallels between herself and the woman she played, she says, but there’s always going to be a personal connection: “You only have your voice and your body to give to your character.”
After Frantz, the prolific and versatile Ozon is tackling a very different subject. His recent works have made “enough money”, he says, to ensure he can usually find funding for his next film. But he takes nothing for granted.
One of his most difficult projects, he recalls,
Pierre Niney and director Francois Ozon on the set; below, Niney with Paula Beer in a scene from the film