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Frantz Programme Note

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Please note: this article contains spoilers.

A common critical stance when discussing the work of French director François Ozon is to assert the wide stylistic variety and unpredictability of his oeuvre, which feature film-wise ranges from surrealist camp satire, Sitcom (1998), to new historical drama, Frantz (2016). Ozon’s repeated and remarkably consistent motifs - reflection on national identity, self-reflexivity, the role of women, and pastiche of cinema history - are, however, much more fun to explore.

Frantz is ostensibly a movie about nationality and star-crossed love. In 1919 Quedlinburg, a small town in central Germany, Anna (Paula Beer) is grieving the death of her fiancé, Frantz, in the First World War when Adrien, a Frenchman claiming to be a friend of her deceased lover, shows up. Suspicion surrounds Adrien as representative of an enemy nation. Frantz’s father rejects him as a murderer and the town’s men, raw from the loss of so many of their sons and humiliated by defeat in the war, treat him with hostility. Nationality is used on a deeper level, though, as symbolic of character traits. Anna is cautious and reserved until coming into contact with Adrien’s more romantic vision of the world. This replicates Ozon’s previous explorations of national identity in Swimming Pool (2003), in which an uptight English woman is seduced by a young, sexually voracious French woman, and Potiche (2010), a reflection on French political history through the story of a housewife who becomes an emblem of the country

Overlapping with nationality, self-reflexivity in the form of art featured within the narrative is used to comment on characters and themes. Anna reveals to Adrien that Frantz’s favourite poet was Verlaine whilst hers is Rilke. French poet Paul Verlaine was a Symbolist and member of the the Decadent movement associated with evocation of moods and feelings, subject matter such as fatality, sex, and dreams, and rejection of an objective reality. Rainer Maria Rilke, by contrast, wrote in the German language using a more intensely grounded and existential approach and physical symbols as part of a search for ‘truth.’ Practical-minded Anna takes more of a Rilke path through life until a turning point half way through the film when she orders a copy of Verlaine’s collected works. She subsequently sets off for Paris, purportedly to locate the missing Adrien, and gradually abandons her concept of living an authentic life for a more loose relationship to reality.        

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Édouard Manet’s Le Suicidé (1877-1881) also pops up in several scenes. Adrien initially recalls that Frantz was an admirer of the painting when they visited the Louvre together in pre-war days. The off-kilter depiction of a man on a bed who has shot himself is known for having broken from traditional depictions of suicide, which were based within historical narratives of sacrifice and heroism. Manet’s image of self-destruction in comparison gives no context and has no grand underlying statement. Its consistent re-appearance reinforces that Frantz is a film about the pointlessness of self-sacrifice, both in terms of soldiers dying for their country and lovers, particularly Anna, surrendering themselves to the ideals of amour.

Ozon has always focused on women in his work, most famously in his cryptic and allegorical murder mystery, 8 femmes (2002). Though Frantz portrays essentially a love triangle between two men and a woman, Anna is very much the centre of attention. The majority of the film plays in black and white but occasional scenes in colour represent Anna’s point of view: her joy when she hears music or when she walks with Adrien in the stunning nature surrounding her town. A supposed flashback in colour of Adrien teaching Frantz to play the violin turns out to be the imagined rendering of Anna. Ozon has deliberately swivelled the focal point to his female lead. Frantz is based on a play by Maurice Rostand, already adapted by Ernst Lubitsch in his 1932 drama Broken Lullaby. The two earlier works foreground the character of Adrien but Ozon departs from this and even conjures up a new, second part to the story in which Anna travels to Paris and takes over motivation of the plot.

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A pastiche approach to film history - deliberate commentary on previous works of cinema - is typical for Ozon. Sitcom is an updated version of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem (1968). His fifty-minute movie Regarde La Mer (1997) is a take on Agnes Vardas’ Vagabond (1984). The likes of 8 femmes and Swimming Pool, meanwhile, use well-worn Hollywood genre tropes to probe psycho-sexual subject matter. Frantz continues this as a revamping of Lubitsch with a feminist twist. Other film references also arise. As Anna sits in a Parisian cafe, the entrance of some soldiers prompts a mass belting out of the French national anthem, recalling a similar scenario in Casablanca (Dir: Michael Curtiz, 1942). Unlike the wartime drama’s triumphant version of La Marseillaise, though, Ozon makes the patriotic display brutal and uncomfortable: “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.”[1] Riffing on cinema as an art form is thus utilised here both to question its romanticism and critique a very relevant problem of contemporary life in the savagery of nationalistic fervour.

Frantz tackles ‘the pity of war,’ showing the pain and devastation reaped by everyone, those killed and those left behind to deal with the loss, in one of 20th century Europe’s calamities. Crucial, though, are parallels suggested with present day life and its woes. Ozon states, “I wrote the script just after the terrorist attack on Charlie [Hebdo], and I had all that in mind.”[2] The French-haters in Quedlinburg and flag-wavers in Paris are portrayed as narrow-minded bigots, continuing Ozon’s pattern of analogy alongside an elaborate interrogation of interpersonal relationships. Frantz is therefore best viewed as the latest edition of an auteurist body of work using pastiche and symbolism to subvert conventional views of society.

Helen Wright freelance film programmer and writer
May 2017

 


[1] ‘François Ozon on Frantz,’ Philip Concannon in The Skinny, 8 May 2017 (accessed: 9 May 2017) <http://www.theskinny.co.uk/film/interviews/francois-ozon-on-frantz>.

[2] Ibid.

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