“Awards are like hemorrhoids. Sooner or later every asshole gets one,” François Ozon, one of France's most prolific director/screenwriters, has noted.
With Frantz, his pacifistic, feminist, and slightly homoerotic chronicling of a post-World War I love affair of sorts opening Stateside this week, he can say that with a smile. After all, this feature has already garnered eleven Cécar nominations, including one for best film, and a dozen more from various international film festivals.
For many folks, that’s no surprise. All they have to hear is that a new Ozon is unspooling at their local art house, and they’re hotfooting it to the ticket booth. Why? Few other directors have the ability to depict the psychosexual permutations of our fellow man better, at times accompanied with an unexpected Hitchcockian twist or a good dose of Almodóvarian tongue-in-cheek perversity.
In his 1996 short, "A Summer Dress," a young gay man, after being seduced by a female tourist in the woods, finds his clothing has been stolen, and he has to bicycle home in a spare dress of his seductress. A piece of cotton fabric has seldom transformed a life more. The nightmarish See the Sea (1997) showcases a temperamentally disinclined-to-chatter hitchhiker, who pitches her tent on an isolated property housing a sweet mother and her tot. You’ll never look at a toothbrush with a lack of wariness again. (By the way, The New York Times critiqued the latter as "exquisitely unsettling.")
Sitcom (1998) comically crucifies a suburban bourgeois family while Criminal Lovers (1999) is sort of an oddly twisted take on Hansel and Gretel, where Gretel is kept in the basement and Hansel is chained to the upstairs bed to service the witch, or in this case a hunter. And so forth and so on, nearly every year, with a Woody-Allenesque relentlessness, another Ozon is released and welcomed, including the Fassbender adaptation (Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000)), the all-female murder musical with Catherine Deneuve (Eight Women (2002)), and the tale of a well-off 17-year-old who secretly becomes a prostitute for the “fun” of it (Young & Beautiful (2013)).
Now arrives the aforementioned Frantz, an adaptation of L'homme que j'ai tué, a play by Maurice Rostand, the son of Edmund (Cyrano de Bergeracwhich was first filmed in 1931 by Ernst Lubitsch as Broken Lullaby.
As this melodrama begins, the war is over with millions dead, including Frantz. In the small town of Quedlinburg, the elderly parents of the soldier and his fiancée, Anna (Paula) Beer, who lives with them, still mourn over their loss at an empty grave. Frantz’s body was never returned from the battlefield.
One day Anna sees a stranger at the cemetery grieving by her lover’s tombstone. Who is he, and why is he there every day. Asking about, she discovers he’s French. And when he shows up at the home of Frantz, she discovers he’s Adrien (Pierre Niney), an old friend of Frantz’s, who knew him from Paris. The young men went to the museum together. They both played the violin. They both . . . .
Slowly, the family's wariness subsides, and it accepts Adrien into its inner circle as he entertains and heals with reminiscences of his and his pal’s bygone days, but . . . . To say more would be unfair. Frantz rolls out one surprise after another, raising expectations, then belying them. Here love intermingles with odium as you view the citizens of both Germany and France getting more nationalistic and unconsciously laying the groundwork for World War II. Can true affection root itself in such a foundation? And do Anna and Adrien even understand who is really the object of their warm feelings? To state more would almost be like revealing the pants-dropping moment in The Crying Game or that a ship sinks in Titanic. Well, that might be pushing it a bit.
Anyway, let’s move on to sex and death, a near constant in the Ozon oeuvre. In The New Girlfriend, for example, after her childhood girlfriend dies, a woman eventually realizes she loved her deceased pal in a lesbianic fashion, which she now acts out with the dead woman’s husband who dresses in drag, making believe he is his ex-wife.
In Young & Beautiful, the aforementioned teenage hooker/student realizes a form of love for a much older john who dies mid-copulation within her. And so on and so forth.
Now here in Frantz, an amour connection begins again at the sounding of the death knell.
To find out why, I met up with the visually striking Ozon on one chilly New York City afternoon in his suite at the Le Parker Meridien, not far from Central Park. I asked: "Once again you combine death and sexuality in such a way that they transform lives. Most people do not think about sex and death simultaneously. We, in fact, often try to kick Death off the mattress. Can you explain the connection?"
"It's a big question," he responded. "I once made a short film when I was young called 'A Little Death.' I don't think it means the same thing in English and French. 'A little death' means 'orgasm' in French.'"
"You don’t say 'a little death' when you orgasm?" Ozon queried in a shocked manner.
"No, I don't think so. Possibly we say it when we don't get aroused."
"So it means nothing to you. For us, when you have a little death you orgasm."
"Ah, it sounds very Buddhist."
Ozone responds by giving away the film's plotline so we’ll skip that chatter.
"The playwright Maurice Rostand was sort of a famous homosexual at the time," I note.
"He lived with his mother."
"Ah," I say. "Freud would have expected that. Because you knew Rostand was gay, is that why you expanded the homosexual subtext of the play?"
"No, I didn’t know about Maurice. . . . He was not a great writer. He was a socialite, but he was a pacifist like any intellectual after the First World War, and his play was very successful in France, but I didn't discover he was gay. This I wasn't aware of. We don't know if he had some affair, but he was like a queen. Do you say that? He was a figure of the thirties."
"He also wrote about Oscar Wilde," I add, reciting a factoid from Wikipedia.
"Yes," the director nods.
"If you had been born 20 to 30 years earlier, you might not have been able to include the homosexuality or homoerotica that's part and parcel of many of your films. Do you ever ponder that? Or do you ever look back at your favorite directors and think if they had been born now, they would have changed everything they did?"
Ozon smiles, "I don’t know, but I would have loved to have worked in the thirties and forties in Hollywood with all of the directors I adore, like all of the Germans such as Lubitsch, such as Billy Wilder, such as Hitchcock, who was English, such as all the Europeans who came to Hollywood. They came and made the best films. When you see their films today, they were able to deal with all of these feelings. I saw some days ago Rebecca, the Hitchcock film made in the forties, and it’s all about homosexuality, too. I think it was another way of telling the story, but it was possible because they were clever and perverse enough to be able to say very important things about sexuality."
"You were once called a wunderkind," I recall.
"On imdb.com, there’s a list someone composed that's titled the "Top Directors of All Time" that includes you along with Carl Dreyer, Stanley Kubrick, and Pier Pasolini. Do you believe it when people say you are so wonderful?"
"What is the question?"
"How do you react when people say you're one of the top directors?"
"They don’t say that to me in France actually," Ozone laughs.
"Really? They like Jerry Lewis better than you?"
"I'm sure. I'm sure. I like Jerry Lewis, too. Some of his films are very good, but I don’t care for honors. Prizes. For me what is important is to make movies, to have the freedom to make a film a year if I want, and to go in different directions. What is important is to have enough success to make the next film. I don’t look at the past, and I don't really care obviously."
Mr. Judell has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.