François Ozon’s 17th film in 20 years (amazingly prolific for a 21st century director) is certainly one of his finest. It’s a bold idea: a remake of a 1932 drama, Broken Lullaby, by one of the greatest directors of all time: Ernst Lubitsch. Broken Lullaby is one of that sly master’s lesser efforts though, certainly more suited for a reboot than the eternally fresh To Be Or Not to Be or The Shop Around the Corner. And besides, Ozon takes intriguing liberties with his source, inventing a second half to Lubitsch’s tale (itself based on a play by Maurice Rostand), in which the supporting woman powerfully seizes centre stage away from what was previously a narrative concerning a returned soldier.
The woman is German and is called Anna (Paula Beer), and at the start of the film she’s mourning the death of her fiancé, Frantz, at the end of the First World War. She finds out that a Frenchman called Adrien (Pierre Niney) has been visiting her fiancé’s grave on a daily basis, for reasons that are initially unclear, but help to create a satisfying web of narrative suspense throughout the film’s first half.
Psychosexual implications abound, with the unsettling thought that Adrien might be trying to replace the deceased Frantz in Anna’s affections; this has an undoubted whiff of the ‘doubles’ and necrophilia of Vertigo about it. And, like that film, our understanding of the principle character’s motivations change with a perspective shift in the second half. It follows Anna in travelling to France, and so we start to see the more fantastical aspects of her obsession with Adrien.
We also witness the knife-edge tension between her home nation and his, and several scenes of xenophobic mistrust between French and German locals are very well handled by Ozon, demonstrating the colossal tensions brought about by the war even in the early years of peace. One particularly pointed scene sees Anna sitting in a French café as the locals stand up to salute a trio of soldiers with a loud rendition of La Marseillaise, and Anna’s uncertainty as to how she should act, her embarrassed awkwardness, accidentally exposes the veiled threat of nationalism lurking beneath even simple, understandable acts of patriotism. The Nazis could just have easily happened in France, had the economic situation been anywhere near as dire as Germany’s in the interwar period, and Ozon is quick and thoughtful enough to be aware of this.
Less well handled are the film’s lurching transitions between black and white and colour photography. These might be intended as a tribute to the truly great film about interwar Germany, Heimat, but they still feel heavyhanded. And the luscious colour photography in particular manages to overkill the Romanticism of the scenes of romance (scenes filmed in fields and forests and streams, with poetry recited). I wish it had stuck to the crisper black and white tones throughout, which reveal so much fascinating detail in the contours of the actor’s faces.
And what faces! Pierre Niney’s is thin and aquiline, inviting sympathy with his kindly eyes, yet also inviting suspicion with a hyper-alertness that seems to be working hard to mask some terrible secrets. And Paula Beer’s is pretty in a quiet way, searching and inquisitive and young (the actress is only 22), yet clearly downcast with the weight of the world already. Mature. François Ozon seizes on these unique features to exploit the finest two performances thus far in all of his films, using the complex shadows of Pascal Marti’s photography to maximise each one’s impact in a most impressive way.
Ozon’s got another film coming out this year, of course he does, but he’ll have a tough job matching the repressed passion of this one. Even if he could sometimes do with a wee bit more of Lubitsch’s legendary lightness of touch.