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. I met Ozon during last year's London Film Festival to discuss his excellent new film.
Did you discover Frantz as a play or through the Lubitsch film?
I discovered the play. 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. I began to work on it but I realised Lubitsch made an adaptation, so I was very disappointed and depressed. I watched the film of Lubitsch, 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 from Lubitsch's.
When you are reading a book or watching a play, are you always watching with the eye of a filmmaker, thinking about adaptation?
Yes, that is my problem now. My problem is that when I'm reading a book, if the style of the book is amazing and it's possible to make a cinematic adaptation, I take pleasure in reading it, but if it's not good for cinema adaptation, it's difficult for me to read it. Before I was able to read a lot of books, but now the way I function I project the scene like an adaptation, that's my problem.
What challenges did you face in this adaptation?
The challenge for me was to tell a story with a twist in the middle of the film. 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. I didn't know if it would work or not, but it was the idea to have this first part with the French guy going to Germany and the second part with the German girl going to France, and to have some links between the scenes in each country.
It's a very timely film with the focus on the dangers of nationalism and the prejudice and suspicion aimed at foreigners. Did the current political climate enter your thoughts as you wrote it?
Yes, 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 realised that nationalists exist in France too. I wrote the script just after the terrorist attack in Charlie [Hebdo], and I had all that in mind. You know the scene in the cafe 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.
The scene in which the German doctor meets his old friends in the bar and talks about how the French have also suffered in the war is extremely resonant too.
It's a beautiful scene which comes from Lubitsch, actually. I thought it was a very powerful scene. My producer wanted me to cut it because it is not from the point of view of Adrian or Anna, but for me it was a key scene of the film, because it shows the evolution of the father and it was OK to say that the suffering of the Germans and the French was the same in the war.
Your films often deal with themes of storytelling, truth and fiction. What's interesting here is the suggestion that people often don't want the truth, that they are in fact happier with a lie.
Yes, it was important for me to show that lies and secrets help people survive during very difficult periods, especially during a period of mourning and suffering, and I liked this paradox. It's quite shocking in a period like today when everyone is obsessed with truth and transparency, but I wanted to show the beauty of lies. There is a beautiful quote from Cocteau where he says, "Behind each lie there is some truth", and I think that is the case in this story. Behind the lies of Adrian there is maybe a truth about his feelings, his sexuality.
There are hints about his sexuality dotted throughout the film. Where did that idea come from?
I think it came from the fact that I realised the writer of the play was gay. He was a pacifist, he was gay, but of course at this time it was impossible to say that, and the play is really about this potential strong friendship between the German and a Frenchman, so the fact that we were telling the story from the point of view of the girl, I thought it would be interesting that the audience and the girl could imagine more than what we see and what we hear. It was a false lead and I play with the audience, like Adrian is playing with the family.
Paula Beer is an inexperienced actress but I felt this was an incredibly mature performance. How did you find her?
We met at a big casting, because I didn't know the German actresses, and she was twenty years old. I was quite nervous because I knew it was a very difficult part, she carries the whole story on her shoulders, and when I met her I was surprised because she was very mature, she had a melancholy in her eyes which was very touching. I asked her to come to Paris to make a test with Pierre Niney and the chemistry was perfect between them, but you never know, you take a risk when you work with someone who has made so few things. I remembered the first day of shooting was the scene with the priest. It's a strong scene but we have no choice, we are obliged to begin with this scene, and she was perfect, she had the tear at the perfect moment and I realised I had made the right choice.
She has a great face for black-and-white too.
Everybody is better in black-and-white!
That's a good point! Some people just have good faces, I guess.
Yes, that is true too.
But I felt that you shot her in a way that recalled the Hollywood studio films of the '40s.
Yes, 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!” It awakens your cinephile memories and it was quite surprising. 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.
How did you arrive at the decision to introduce colour into the film in emotional moments?
It was difficult for me to forget colour because I love colour, and usually I use it as part of the mise-en-scene. 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, because I love colours. When I spoke to the person who did the location scouting I gave them the reference of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, and 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.
So did your DP have to light for both colour and black-and-white?
That was the difficulty for him. You know, when you light you don't light in the same way for black-and-white and colour, you put some filters on to have more contrast, so he kept asking me, "Are you sure you won't be going back to colour for this scene?" He was quite nervous. I knew which scenes would be in colour and which would be in black-and-white so I could tell him each time.
The musical score is again provided by Philippe Rombi, who has worked with you a number of times. He has done great work for you across a variety of styles and genres. How do you work with him?
I think technicians are like actors, you have to direct them, When I work with Philippe I direct him, I tell him what kind of music I need and I want, and because he has a lot of talent he is able to go into different directions, different genres. Sometimes he sends me some music after reading the script. I send him a lot of music I like to give him some inspiration, and when we have our first editing we show that to him very fast and tell him what we want. We have a very good relationship and collaboration, and he has no ego, unlike some musicians, so he's great to work with. In the case of this film I wanted to begin with something like a suspense movie, and after have something more lyrical and romantic in the spirit of Mahler or other romantic musicians.
This is a great film to watch on the big screen but the reality is that many films like this will be watched on televisions or laptops via streaming services. Does that trouble you?
I'm sad but what can I do? I can't fight against everybody, you know. 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 England. In France, this film is a success, at the box office we are more than 500,000 admissions. For a film in black-and-white and German, it's good. In France we are very lucky that we are still a cinephile audience.
I think you're right, that it is to do with the culture. In the past even great British directors like Ken Loach have had tiny releases here but wide releases in France.
Yes, and in France the next one will be more than one million admissions, we know that, because he won the Palme d'Or. People love his movies. In England I think it is more a theatrical culture but in France it is definitely a cinema culture.
What about the infrastructure for making movies in France? Is it easy for you to find funding for a film like this?
I am not representative of the French cinema because I think I am now in a place where I am very lucky, because my films are quite successful so it's not difficult for me to get produced, and because my films are not very expensive. For this film, it's a co-production with Germany, and actually we found the German money very easily, because the Germans were very excited about the project and the fact that a French director wanted to make a film about Germany, they were very touched. We found about €6 million in France and €3 million in Germany.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of See the Sea. Do you ever look back at your own work?
I was obliged because I made a digital copy of See the Sea, and I was quite surprised because it was shot in 16mm and in digital it was beautiful. I said to my DP maybe I should shoot my next film in 16mm because it's very beautiful, and it was a good surprise. The film is still shocking, no? I was shocked by my own film! I thought, "Oh my God, what have I done?" But no, I was quite happy to watch it again. I would change things if I shot it again today. It was quite an aggressive movie, quite sadistic, and it was what I wanted to make at this age.
Do you have a sense of how you have changed as a filmmaker over these two decades? Do you think you could make a film like, say, Sitcom today?
I would make it differently today, but I would love to have the opportunity to make a remake of one of my films. It would be very funny as an exercise, but I'm not sure I would find a producer. Especially for the films which were a flop.
How do you react when your films are a flop and poorly reviewed?
I think the best critic is time. It's true, we know in the history of cinema there are so many films that were hated when they were released and they are now considered masterpieces. There is a kind of relativity you have to have in yourself. Of course, it is difficult for me when everybody says your film is shit! I say, "Maybe in time, you know..." I think I was lucky from the start to be hated and loved at the same time. 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.
When researching for this interview I noticed you were invited to join the Academy last year.
Ah, The Oscars! Yes! I voted last year for the first time.
Did that feel like a big deal? Like some sort of milestone?
It is very expensive! That's what I thought. It was $600...or $500, something like that to be part of the committee. It's funny, it's a game. I get all the DVDs but it's quite surprising because you don't vote in all the categories. You know, I don't belong to Hollywood and this industry, in France we are nothing for them. It's good that it is not just the Americans that vote. It's supposed to be an honour, no?
Yeah, I suppose it is.
OK, so I will take the honour!
You are known for being a very prolific filmmaker. When you finish a film, do you already know what your next project will be?
I need to finish the movie first. I need to finish the editing, actually. When I've finished the editing I begin to think of something else, and a new story arrives.
And is the motivation always to push into a new direction from your last film?
Not especially. 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.
So do you already have your next picture in mind?
I begin a new shooting in two weeks, and it will be a thriller. In French. See you next year!