The popular French film director François Ozon is best known for sex and satire (8 Women, Swimming Pool, Potiche), but with Frantz, he offers a complex period drama, set in Europe just after the First World War. The film, about a Frenchman visiting a small German town to mourn a dead soldier, is partly inspired by the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch movie, Broken Lullaby. Ozon recently spoke with The Globe and Mail by phone from Montreal.
Why revive Broken Lullaby?
The idea didn't come from the film but from the play by [Maurice] Rostand. I discovered it and I really like the 'pitch,' this French soldier putting flowers on the grave of a German. I thought it was a great starting point for a film. I was working on an adaptation and then I discovered Lubitsch had already done it. I was bit depressed. How was I going to do this if Lubitsch, who I greatly admire, has already done it? I watched his film and I loved it, but you really have to see it through the lens of its time: it dates to the thirties and Lubitsch made the film without knowing the Second World War would arrive. The play and the film are both from the point of view of the young Frenchman, Adrien; I thought today you really have to make the film from the point of view of the Germans, those who lost the war and, in particular, from the point of view of the young German girl, Anna. So, I decided to tell the same story differently. In the original, you know from start who Adrien is; in my film, you don't discover that until halfway through.
Yes, the title of the play …
You can't say it, you'll give everything away.
And you've added a third act, when the action moves back to France?
Absolutely. I constructed the film as mirror images of the two countries, Germany and France, whereas in Lubitsch's version the film ends with Adrien being accepted into the German family; he takes the place of Frantz.
It was an ironic conclusion?
Today, it seems ironic to us, but when Lubitsch conceived of it in the 1930s, it was sincere, it was a paean to reconciliation: never again would there be such a horrible war. That's why it's impossible to tell the story in the same way today.
Because it was too idealistic …
Well, history did not prove him right.
I also wanted to ask you about the homoeroticism you hint at in your film. Did you have any concern that a contemporary audience expects to see that theme explicitly spelled out?
It's true the viewer is going to be wondering about the nature of the relationship between Frantz and Adrien, but that is the contemporary viewer. In the 1930s, no one would have thought that and, at the time, neither Anna nor Frantz's parents would have thought that. I am interested in the differences between the eras. Adrien tells a lie, but one recognizes there is a piece of truth in it. Even if he didn't know Frantz, he had a certain kind of love affair with him; he's in love with a dead person.
Most of your films have been set in the present. How did you adapt to working on a period piece?
The use of black and white in some ways helped me make the film more realistic. After all, all our memories of that period are in black and white, what we have seen on TV, in the cinema, in archival photos. We have the impression that people lived in black and white in those times. I loved that aspect of it, the research, the reconstruction of a historical period.
And how did you decide where to move into colour? It's an unusual mix of the two.
Yes, the cliché is the past is in black and white, the present in colour.
Here, it's ambiguous. I wanted to play with the viewer so that people would say, 'If it's in colour, is it the truth or a lie? Is it the past or the present?' It's not really rational, it was more emotional.
The idea was that colour returns whenever there are strong emotions. It was a bit as though blood was flowing back into the veins of these characters who are like the living dead.
How did you work in Germany? Do you speak German?
Yes, but it was still a challenge. You don't have the same reflexes [in another language], but I was lucky to cast excellent German actors who had done a lot of theatre and were really heroic in the film. I think the Germans were very touched that a Frenchman was making a film about their history, and for once they weren't going to be the bad guys, the Nazis.
Can you tell me anything about your new project, L'Amant double (The Double Lover)?
I realized Frantz was my most chaste film; there is not a single sex scene.
So the next one, there is going to be a lot of sex.
This interview has been edited, condensed and translated from French.
Frantz opens April 7 in Toronto and Montreal.