Serious movie lovers tend to view remakes at best with caution and at worst with outright derision. That’s understandable: With Disney cranking out live action updates to a number of its beloved animated properties, Marvel producing three iterations of “Spider-Man” in less than 20 years and rumors flying about an ill-advised reboot of “The Matrix,” the very notion of a remake is an instant cause for concern.
But at least one remake released in 2017 exists outside of that trend: French director François Ozon’s “Frantz,” a tender revision of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 drama “Broken Lullaby,” alternately known as “The Man I Killed.” It was the only straight dramatic effort by the screwball comedy master, and a flop upon release that only diehard cinephiles have tracked down. But Ozon’s version isn’t entirely faithful to the original.
“Frantz,” shot in a mixture of black-and-white and color, explore a fascinating mystery in the aftermath of WWI. The story takes place in a small German town in 1919, where young widow Anna (Paula Beer) mourns the death of her husband Frantz on the battlefield; at his grave site, she meets a strange man named Adrien (Pierre Niney), who claims to have been close with her husband during his wartime travels. In Lubitsch’s version, it’s clear from the start that this character is actually a Frenchman responsible for killing the woman’s dead husband, and has shown up to do penance for his sins. But Ozon integrates this detail into one of several twists throughout the movie, as Anna learns more about Adrien’s past and uses it to determine their future together.
Starting with that somber, intimate setting and concluding in the cosmopolitan rush of Paris, the movie blossoms into a lavish period piece about postwar trauma and the desire to move on. It’s a serviceable adaptation of the Lubitsch work as well as an intelligent revision of its themes.
There’s a reason why Ozon doesn’t adapt every detail of the Lubitsch original: The filmmaker was unaware of “Broken Lullaby” when he started working on “Frantz,” which was initially just an adaptation of the French play that inspired the original movie. “I didn’t want to do a remake,” Ozon said during a recent interview in New York, where he was attending a screening of the film at part of Lincoln Center’s Rendezvous With French Cinema series. “But when I saw Lubitsch’s film, I realized I wanted to do it differently.”
That’s the usual modus operandi for Ozon, best known in the United States for the comedic musical “8 Women” and mysterious noir “Swimming Pool,” both of which toy with familiar genres from fresh angles. The prolific director tends to enrich his narratives with ambiguous details surrounding the motivations of his characters, and “Frantz” is no different.
Throughout the movie, it’s unclear whether Adrien is romantically attracted to Frantz’s widow, or to the memory of Frantz himself. “I liked the idea that there is something a little bit necrophiliac about it,” Ozon said. “He falls in love with Frantz, and lies about it, which becomes something like a fantasy for him.”
Nevertheless, despite the implications beneath the surface, “Frantz” has a surprising degree of restraint that harkens back to earlier decades of cinema — and stands in stark contrast to the more sensual approach found throughout the director’s work. “It’s my least sensual movie,” Ozon said, grinning at the realization. “It’s a film about restriction, about young people who don’t know exactly what they feel. They are lost, destroyed by the first war.”
The impact of that conflict provided a framing device for Ozon to inject contemporary ideas beneath the surface of the plot. He wrote the screenplay shortly after the Charlie Hedbo attacks in Paris and couldn’t help but integrate aspects of the national mood. “It wasn’t my goal, but I realized while making the film that it would be political,” he said. “I didn’t know Brexit would happen, I didn’t know Trump would be elected, but we felt a strange mood in France.”
He heard people singing the Marseillaise everywhere, and questioned the patriotic message associated with the anthem, leading him to write one of the movie’s standout moments — a scene in which Frantz, a French soldier disguised as a German, visits a German pub and listens to the defiant, inebriated locals sing the melody in a furious tone. “When you hear the lyrics of the Marseillaise, you realize that they’re very violent, very nationalistic,” Ozon said. “So I wanted to have a scene where you hear the lyrics differently, in the context of war.”
This is new terrain for Ozon, who tends to focus on queer themes throughout his work, with prominent gay characters in everything from “Eight Women” to “Le Refuge” standing out in his filmography. “Frantz” doesn’t explicitly deal with that, although for much of the movie, viewers may assume that Adrien’s obsession with Frantz is the result of an affair he won’t admit. Ozon said that implication was part of his master plan. “For Lubitsch, the story is more about friendship,” Ozon said. “But I wanted to play with the audience. I knew that people familiar with my films would think about this.”
In his research, Ozon discovered that the author of the original play, Maurice Rostand, was a closeted gay man who lived all his life with his mother. “Maybe there was something unconscious there,” Ozon said.
Still, the prolific director is ready to go back to the more explicit approach in his next project, “Double Lover,” an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates novel set to star Jérémie Renier, Jacquline Bisset and Marine Vacth, last seen at the center of Ozon’s prostitution drama “Young & Beautiful.” “I realized ‘Frantz’ is a very chaste movie,” Ozon said. “I wanted to go back to sex.”
Judging by his usual rate of productivity — Ozon tends to complete one movie per year — it won’t be long before audiences get to see his next effort. “I try not to repeat myself,” he said. “I try each time to have a new challenge, because it takes a lot of energy to make one film a year. Fassbinder was able to make seven films a year. He died when he was 49. I’m still alive. One film per year is enough.”
“Frantz” is now playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles on March 24. It expands to several more cities the following week. A full list of theaters is available here. Watch the trailer below.