IM­PER­FECT STRANGERS

Di­rec­tor Fran­cois Ozon’s lat­est film seeks answers in a land­scape lit­tered with de­ceit, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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

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