Our culture correspondent on the filmmaker Francois Ozon, whose latest works veer from comparatively chaste to France’s answer to Fifty Shades of Grey.
The French film-maker Francois Ozon was already having a stellar year. Frantz, his film about Franco-German relations in the aftermath of the First World War, has had rave reviews around the world. The film received eleven Cesar nominations and won for Best Cinematography. It has been hailed as a new direction for contemporary cinema, seamlessly mixing nostalgia with political commentary as easily as it switches between black and white and colour.
Now Ozon’s new erotic thriller L’Amant Double has been dubbed France’s answer to Cinquante Nuances de Grey (Fifty Shades of Grey) and was recently widely tipped to win the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, largely because everyone thought that Pedro Almodovar, the president of this year’s Cannes jury, would fall in love with it. (In the end it lost to Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s The Square.)
At the age of 49, Ozon looks like one of his own leading men and has been described as having the appearance of ‘a maturing matinee idol’. He’s a committed grafter, turning out close to a film a year for the past 20 years. His biggest hit outside France is 8 Femmes, a quirky musical murder mystery which was an hommage to 1950s Hollywood. (And shared a lot of the aesthetics of La La Land.) Starring Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant and Virginie Ledoyen, it took over $42 million at the box office and was nominated for 12 Cesars. Sadly, and slightly weirdly, it was ignored by the Oscars.
Born in Paris and a student at the legendary La Femis, France’s Ecole Nationale Superieure of film, Ozon is known as one of the ‘New Wave’ directors and is one of the filmmakers known for celebrating ‘un cinema du corps’ – a cinema of the body which focuses on a sort of visceral physicality. (Scorsese is also known for this approach in France: think unflinching gaze, psychological self-examination and intensity.)
Ozon has a number of favourite actors who love to work with him: Catherine Deneuve (8 Femmes, Potiche); Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool, Sous Le Sable, Angel, Jeune & Jolie); Fabrice Luchini (Potiche, Dans La Maison). He considers the English actress Romola Garai his muse after they worked on his first and only English language film Angel, a performance which saw Garai named as one of the actresses of the year in the Independent. The film is based on the novel of the same name by the novelist Elizabeth Taylor, about the life of a fiery and passionate young writer. It didn’t quite achieve the international audience Ozon had hoped for.
Frantz, however, has. Made in French and German (and with native speakers from each language), it has been another break-out film for Ozon. It is based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film Broken Lullaby, which was itself based on the 1930 play L’Homme Que J’ai Tue by Maurice Rostand and the 1931 English adaptation The Man I Killed, by Reginald Berkeley. (The title of the original play offers something of a spoiler which Ozon plays with in Frantz. We know there’s a link between a French soldier and a German soldier but we don’t know what that link is. And even when we do find out, Ozon moves the goalposts again.)
Frantz is about a mysterious Frenchman who visits the town of Quedlinburg in Germany, where 19-year-old Anna (played by Paula Beer) is mourning her fiancé. She is astonished to see Adrien (Pierre Niney) also visiting the grave and decides to befriend him. A cautious friendship emerges and in the second part of the film, Anna goes to look for Adrien in Paris.
This could have been a film about war, grief and youth, but Ozon brings it back up-to-date by contrasting the reactions of the two nationalities: neither the French nor the Germans come out well. There are two striking moments in the film where Ozon makes a blunt point about nationalism. First, we hear a group of Germans singing The Watch on the Rhine, a German anthem about victory over the French. Then we see the effect on a young German woman visiting Paris when everyone sitting in a restaurant starts singing La Marseillaise when a war hero walks in. As viewers we are encouraged to take the side of the person who can’t join in the singing. It’s the uncomfortable, bullying side of patriotism where it crosses into the sort of jingoism that isn’t just about national pride but instead requires others to be debased in order for it to survive.
Ozon has talked about what it was like to make the film just after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. ‘During this period we heard La Marseillaise a lot, people from everywhere singing it in the street. But people forget the sense of the lyrics, so it was interesting to put it in the real context of the song in the film and to hear the song with the ears of a German girl,’ he told the Financial Times earlier this year.
The interplay of black and white and colour in the film mirrors Ozon’s own approach to nuance: sometimes he is very subtle in his approach; at other times garish. He loves to express complicated and difficult ideas and is not worried if he doesn’t succeed 100%. He says: ‘I did a lot of research on the German side because there are so many films from the French point of view. I wanted to understand the rise of nationalism. Even young Germans do not learn so much about the First World War in their history classes. My German producers were very happy because I was telling a story in which they were not the bad guys.’ (Having seen the film, though, I have to say that this is arguable.)
Ozon seems open to lots of different kinds of films (which is something his work is criticised for – there is no central organising principle). But he takes the view that the only important thing is to avoid Hollywood. ‘I think that if you went to America you would lose your soul because you have to work in the American way, which is so different from the European way of making movies. When you have the freedom to do exactly what you want, why would you move to America to be totally controlled and have to work with people maybe you don’t respect and who are difficult to work with? I would not have final cut in Hollywood. In France, a director must have final cut. It’s the law.’
Having called Frantz his ‘most chaste’ movie, the next one is the opposite. L’Amant Double is adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’ short story The Lives of Twins. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw has already called it ‘like a super-porny version of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected’ or ‘a 105-minute ad for perfume: Pervitude by Chanel.’ It sounds perfect.