REVIEW: Frantz

21 03 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Cinema still runs low on great films about the Great War this side of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Though more people ought to give another look to Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” roundly dismissed after being dumped in theaters over Labor Day weekend, they should also look at François Ozon’s “Frantz,” a film which debuted just a few days later at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. Rather than steeping his post-war milieu in melodrama like the former director, Ozon stages a dimly austere meditation on forgiveness in continental Europe.

The pared back simplicity of the black and white visual scheme, recalling the crispness of Haneke’s similarly two-toned “The White Ribbon,” might come as shocking to any Francophile cinema fans who know Ozon for his fizzy, vivacious filmmaking. The occasional stylistic flourishes do make their way into “Frantz,” punctuating the tense silences by reminding us of a joy seemingly absent in the wake of World War I’s devastation. But the overwhelming majority of the film is a masterclass in controlling ambiance and delicate unravelling of repressed emotion.

Of course, little of this occurs while letting the film wash over. “Frantz” begins as a simple mystery as Anna (Paula Beer), the widow of a German solider, observes a Frenchman repeatedly visiting her departed husband’s grave. He eventually introduces himself as Adrien (Pierre Niney), and he claims to have come in order to pay respects to the soldier he too knew. Showing up to a small, provincial town little over a year after the Armistice is a bold move for Adrien given that, as someone declares, “every Frenchman is my son’s murderer.”

The ensuing engagement and estrangement between he and Anna illustrates the difficult process of healing and remarrying while the wounds of armed conflict are still fresh. 1920 was still a time of hope for a brighter future; maybe the Great War would live up to its title of “The War to End All Wars” after all. But Adrien, Anna and Europe as a whole know the temptation of a comforting lie to paper over difficult fissures in a relationship. Ozon never shows these chasms in “Frantz,” though they loom ever larger as the post-war tranquility appears increasingly illusory. B+

REVIEW: The New Girlfriend

13 02 2016

The New GirlfriendAnyone familiar with the work of French writer/director Francois Ozon knows to expect a certain level of twisted characters and crazy plots in any of his films. The latest, “The New Girlfriend,” does not mark any kind of departure for him. Transvestism and transgender issues are the main eccentricity here, in ways both enlightening and tiresome.

Romain Duris’ title character, Virginia, was known to the world as David, husband to Laura and father Lucie. But when Laura dies young, it leaves one grieving spouse – not to mention a best friend, Anais Demoustier’s Claire, equally devastated. Each takes on the grief of Laura’s passing in their own way, though David’s is perhaps a little less conventional. He always had a taste for cross-dressing (even letting Laura know), and he uses his wife’s death to further explore a female alter ego to provide the now-missing maternal care. Claire stumbles into David in full Virginia guise quite by accident, and she fully welcomes and encourages him to explore these repressed personality elements in the wake of Laura’s passing.

Virginia quickly becomes more than just a surrogate mother for Lucy, developing into a woman in her own right – not to mention a good friend to Claire and her husband Gilles. The sexual confusion and gender-bending antics that result from embracing the Virginia persona are not exactly coherent treatises on trans issues, however. Such is not a requirement for Ozon, but his blasé attitude towards deeper consideration of self-identity makes “The New Girlfriend” feel a little too flippant in some key moments.

Ozon is at his best when the events on screen reflect how each character looks to fill the void left by Laura in their lives. Claire needs a best friend. David needs a parenting partner and a lover. Try as each person might, neither can quite function as a fulfilling facsimile. These moments of unexpected mourning amidst resuming normalcy provide “The New Girlfriend” with its real dramatic heft. B2halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 5, 2015)

5 03 2015

In the HouseFrançois Ozon made a big splash in 2003 with his film “Swimming Pool,” which follows the exploits of a novelist pulling generously from real life to write her next book.  A decade later, he circles back to the same themes with his adaptation of “In the House.”  It hardly feels like a rerun, however.

Ozon, here, concerns himself with the ethical position of the observer watching actuality being warped into literary fantasy.  This thrilling, dramatic work earns my nod for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because of the way it raises fascinating questions about the challenges and conundrums faced by all who write fictional tales.  While Ozon stops short of making the voyeuristic audience feel that moral weight, “In the House” nonetheless excites and enchants with its intellectual interrogations.

The film plays out as a serialized drama refracted through the experience of a teenage boy, the inquisitive student Claude (Ernest Umhauer).  His incisive description of the inner workings and desires of the real, banal middle-class home belonging to his socially awkward classmate Rapha Artole proves tantalizing to Claude’s teacher, washed-up writer Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini).  Germain wants to develop and hone his pupil’s writing skills, so he begins to tutor him privately in order to discuss his compositions.

But Germain also pushes him to take surprising actions in his dealings with the Artoles to make Claude’s writing more daring in tone and content.  Thus, the always teetering fulcrum between art reflecting life and life reflecting art begins to fluctuate so rapidly that any distinction between the directionality become inpossible to discern.  Germain essentially turns Claude into a narrative Rumpelstiltskin, exploiting the beauty of the mundane for textual gold and personal gain.

“In the House” excellently illuminates the problems of narrativizing life as it plays out as well as how the writing of life ex post facto clouds and ruins the living of it.  Ozon’s smart plotting and direction makes these quandaries not only intriguing to mull over but also truly riveting to watch in action.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 16, 2013)

16 08 2013

As the summer begins to wrap up, it might be a good time to squeeze in a viewing of Francois Ozon’s steamy “Swimming Pool,” my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  While this scintillating thriller makes the most sense for a seasonal watch, I’m fully convinced it could stand up in any of the other nine months of the year.  It’s a completely engaging film with a plot that will envelop you entirely as it prepares for a killer final act.

The action begins when Charlotte Rampling’s Sarah Morton, a British mystery author beginning to hit a creative wall, settles into her boss’ French country house to get her creative juices flowing.  Just as she begins to find enough quietude in the locale to write a new book, Sarah gets an unexpected house guest: her publisher’s daughter, the young and capricious Julie (Ludivine Sagnier).  The two mix like oil and water as the crotchety Sarah refuses to entertain any of Julie’s whims.

However, as we dive deeper into “Swimming Pool,” we begin to see that Sarah is deriving a sort of perverse inspiration from Julie’s various romantic exploits.  As she begins to observe, the real-life drama begins to spill onto the page … or perhaps it’s the other way around?  Ozon throws the boundary between reality and fiction into complete question towards the film’s finale, one that leaves us reeling for days.

That conclusion would not work, though, were it not for Ozon’s tight and precise direction throughout “Swimming Pool.”  He makes every moment build tension until it bursts by the end.  It also helps that Rampling and Sagnier are quite a devious duo, playing with and off each other in brilliant ways.  Combining all their power makes for one refreshingly original and captivating thriller.

REVIEW: Young & Beautiful

14 08 2013

Jeune & JolieCannes Film Festival – Official Competition

After both years I’ve gone to Cannes, I have suffered painful withdrawals from the world’s best curated art cinema.  I find myself wanting to revisit these fascinating movies I’ve just seen but am forced to wait months on end before they see Stateside release.  (I’m still waiting to get a second helping of “The Hunt,” my favorite film of the 2012 festival.)

Strangely enough, the movie from Cannes 2013 I’ve been most anxious to see again was not my favorite film of the festival, James Gray’s immaculate “The Immigrant.”  I find myself thinking quite often about Francois Ozon’s odd “Young & Beautiful,” flaws and all.  It’s a film I can’t wait to see again because it’s so unconventional and refreshingly different.

From the moment I left the orchestra of the Lumiere Theater on that rainy Thursday afternoon, I have been trying to figure out how Francois Ozon made the peculiar concoction that is “Young & Beautiful” work at all.  I am even more perplexed as to how it managed to entrance and beguile me so fully.  Because, quite frankly, it walks a rather fine line between being provocative and being offensive.

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