Frantz: An interview with director François Ozon
François Ozon is a renowned French director whose latest feature, Frantz, has made a big impression throughout the cinematic world. Centred around the appearance of a German soldier in a small French village after World War I, Frantz explores nationalism, the trauma of war, and the paradox of lies in suffering. We asked the director about the portrayal of nationalism in the film, his adaptation process and which films inspire him.
Hello François, thanks for talking with us. Welcome back to London, do you feel relieved after France’s election results?
Yes, big relief. Thanks to Brexit and Trump it helped us make the right choice.
Do you think the film industry would have suffered had Le Pen won?
Yes, well I don’t know what would have happened but we have seen already what the extreme right has done to some cities. Sometimes they have censored some films because they didn’t like what they are about. We know what the extreme right has done in the past with culture, so of course it would have been very, very difficult. But I’m sure many artists would have protested; already there are a list of people asking not to vote for Le Pen – all the artists, directors, actors, the whole world of culture was afraid and nervous about the elections. Thankfully, we won.
Frantz serves as a kind of reminder about the dangers of nationalism, especially as it has spread across Europe recently. Was this intentional?
Not really. The first idea was to make a film about secrets and lies, and when I discovered the play I realised the context was very important, the context of the war. So, I did a lot of research, and especially because I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the German, the loser of the war, I discovered what happened in Germany after the first war: the humiliation of the Germans at the Treaty of Versailles, which was very important, and the fact that all the roots of Nazism were there after the First World War. So, I realised that nationalism would be important in the story and my idea was not to say but to show that nationalism in Germany or in France is the same thing. It’s the same stupid thing, and nationalism equals war. So, it was important to show that and develop that, and I realised that I made that, all that work, in the context of the attacks in Paris. It was after Charlie Hebdo, so of course I was totally involved in what happened. But I didn’t have the feeling that the film would have so many connections with today, you know, because when I wrote the script I didn’t know that Brexit would happen, I didn’t know that Trump would be elected. Of course, I saw the rise of nationalism with Le Pen in France because it happened over a very long time with her father too. So, I had all of that in mind, but I didn’t know it would be so, at the end, so present in the movie.
Brexit surely isn’t going to help here. Are there any recent British films that have caught your eye?
Of course. I’ve seen the last film from Ken Loach, which is very popular in France, you know, and the film resonated with the social problems in France too. It’s always good to have some news from Ken Loach because it’s a way to understand what’s happening in England, and the French are very signified and very political too so they love his movies. I saw a small film called Lady Macbeth one week ago, the film was just released, and I think it’s had a small success in France. I loved the mise en scène – very simple – and I thought economically it was very well done for a period movie. But, I would like to make some English movies about Brexit. I think the English directors should speak and show the context of what happened in England, why Brexit happened, because in France we didn’t understand why the English… Well of course we understand why they did that, but we were very surprised because we had the feeling that they had forgotten their sense of history; because the English were so important during the last century, they had a big part in the two world wars and we had the feeling that they are going in a bad direction, they have forgotten their past. That’s why Frantz is important for me because remembering what happened in the past is the best way to understand the present. We have the feeling the English have forgotten their brilliant past, because they were so important and they helped us to win the Second World War.
Looking through your filmography it seems that you have adapted around four plays into film, is there any reason for this preference?
Of course, there are some reasons but each time it’s different reasons. You know, I’ve always assumed that cinema comes from theatre, and I’m not afraid to have some theatrical moments in my movies, and to play with the theatrical effects. So, it depends on each film, you know. A film like 8 Women is very theatrical, I played with that; with a film like 5×2 or a film like Potiche it’s different in the way [I adapt] because I try to forget the play, so it was the opposite for 8 Women – and so for each time it’s different. For Frantz, it’s from a play, but you don’t feel that it comes from a play.
Is there a big difference between adapting a play or a novel for you? Is it different from filming your own original script?
Yes, it’s always different work. But it depends what you want to create in the end, because there’s always the idea when you adapt a play to put the scenes outside, and very often a play happens in one place – if the play’s good you don’t have to move. When Hitchcock made Rope it was in one place, and he assumed because it was a play he should film all the scenes in one place. Or Dial M for Murder that was a play too, and everything happens in one place, so it depends on the story. For Frantz it was important to show France, to show Germany and different places, so it was quite different.
Another fil rouge is the presence of beautiful, tormented women. Do you find them almost instantly or is it a long casting process?
Yes, for this film I needed a very strong actress because the part of Anna is very important. She has the whole film on her shoulders so I needed to find someone very strong. So I went through a long casting process because I didn’t know the young German actresses, and when I discovered Paula Beer it was love at first sight because she was beautiful, clever, very young, just 20 years old but very mature at the same time. It’s always a risk when you give such a big part to a young actress, but the first day of shooting I knew it was the right choice because we shot the scene in the confessional, in front of the priest, and she had the tear at the perfect time on her cheek and so I knew she would be good for the film.
Frantz is quite a marked change for you considering its style, why did you decide to make a film like it?
The style of my films come from the stories. I try to have a style that’s the most adaptive to the story. In the case of Frantz shooting in black and white, to be close to the character, was important, and I knew that the effects of the mise en scène had to be subtle and not too heavy. So, it really comes from the story.
When characters in Frantz encounter art, music or love – anything that inspires their emotions – colour seeps into the movie – if your life was filmed like this, which piece of music would bring the colours?
Some music that would change the colour of my life? Some stupid songs. (Laughs) Yes, of course, I think there are some songs or some music that link with some emotional moments of your life – especially the past – and suddenly you hear an old song and the memory of love, of strong feelings, come back and that’s the power of music.
White lies and uncovering lies is something that happens quite a lot throughout the movie, with Anna lying to the Hoffmeisters, with her discovering the hotel where Frantz stayed in Paris. Considering the initial mystery of Adrien, do you think that white lies can be as important as the truth?
White lies? (Laughs) That’s a good expression, I didn’t know this expression. I was interested to show that in this period of transparency, of obsession of truth, sometimes lies in difficult context can be helpful to survive. It’s not a glorification of lies or fake news. But I wanted to show the paradox of lies in difficult times, and it’s a moral case that Anna is living, and I wanted to share that with the audience. What would you have done in the same situation? You know, you want to protect people you like when you know they will suffer, and there is a scene that is very important; it’s the scene in the confessional where the priest is not very Catholic (laughs) because he said go on with lies. But I thought it was touching to hear this man, who is responsible for morality, [say] we’ve had enough tears, enough pain, we have to turn the page and try to survive.
Why did you choose Manet’s painting The Suicide to be referenced and shown throughout the film?
Because there was an illusion to a painting by Courbet in the play, and when I discovered the painting it was too romantic, and I needed something stronger and more violent. So, I did some research and I found Le Suicidé by Manet and I was quite shocked because the painting is very frontal, very strong, very powerful, and so I thought it would be a good metaphor for this story. So I used it: I show it first in black and white, and [then] I wanted to end the film with the painting in colour with all the violence of the topic of the painting.
It’s a very arresting picture, definitely. As a medium of expression, do you think that film is indebted to art?
I think movies are art, can be art, not always. But, it’s the French who said the seventh art is cinema. I don’t know if you use this expression in England.
Are there certain qualities that makes a film great for you?
It depends, you know, sometimes you have some guilty pleasures. You can have some films that would be stupid for you but strong for me. So, it’s very personal, it’s very subjective. But for me, I like a film where I have the feeling that I have a place to exist in front of the film, to have the freedom to have my own interpretation, and to have the feeling to be changed by a film. I have a certain idea before watching a film but at the end I have the feeling that I’ve moved, or discovered, something about myself, or have connections with something I didn’t know. That’s what I usually like.
Can you give us any examples of any films that have done that to you?
I think when I discovered the films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder it was very important for me because it helped me know what kind of movies I wanted to make, and to feel totally free to go in different directions and to mix different genres. So, I think the discovery of Fassbinder’s films was very important, but especially for my own work because I discovered his movies when I was a student, when I didn’t know which direction I wanted to go; so I had many questions and I had that feeling that I had many contradictions in my taste of movies. But [discovering] Fassbinder was very helpful.
Thanks so much for your time!
Frantz is released in selected cinemas on 12th May 2017.
Watch the trailer for Frantz here: