Let us not avoid l'éléphant dans la pièce. François Ozon and I meet the day after the French presidential election. A sense of relief is palpable.
“Yes, it is a big relief for the French,” he says. “I am happy that we escaped from the white extremism.”
How did Marine Le Pen get so far?
“I think it is to do with globalisation,” he says. “People have the feeling that they don’t belong to the country. Macron has a job to reunite two parts of the country. We made a good decision because we saw what happened in America with Trump.”
I had this idea of making the story into a mirror. We see Germany from the French perspective and France from the German perspective
The conversation is relevant to Ozon's excellent new film Frantz. This week, the prolific director – he's been delivering almost one release a year since 1998 – gives us a beautiful, knotty period drama. Derived from an obscure 1932 film by Ernst Lubitsch, Frantz concerns a Frenchman who, following the first World War, travels east and places flowers on the grave of a slain German soldier.
It's a sort of romance. But the film has much to say about the dangers of nationalism. One scene in particular really stands out: a young German woman shrinks as, while visiting Paris, she hears La Marseillaise belted out in a bar. One line is translated as "Let impure blood water our furrows." It's like a subversion of that famous, stirring scene from Casablanca.
‘Never seen Casablanca’
"I have to tell you a secret," he laughs. "I have never seen Casablanca. Now I should watch it. Yes, it is very important to hear La Marseillaise in the context of war. We hear it at a football match. We heard it last night when Macron won. It was important to hear it through the ears of a German. It makes that connection between German and French nationalism."
There was, indeed, a move to change the lyrics during the 1980s, but it came to nothing.
"It was interesting. I wrote the script during the period of the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo. You heard it then. It was important to put it into this other context."
Ozon first approached Frantz via the play L'homme que j'ai tué by Maurice Rostand, and was then disconcerted to discover that Lubitsch – best known for his comedies – had adapted the piece with Lionel Barrymore and Nancy Carroll.
But he realised that later history brought new perspectives. Both the play and the earlier film presume a period of peace and harmony to come. Ozon’s film is aware of lurking nationalism and an even more destructive war.
“You get the feeling at the end of the Lubitsch film that they are all going to live happily and this will never happen again,” he says. “So I had this idea of making the story into a mirror. We see Germany from the French perspective and France from the German perspective.”
The film is also notable for its innovative blending of colour and black-and-white. Frantz is far from the first film to use such shifts, but Ozon seems to be employing his own unusual logic. Most of the film is monochrome. We shift to colour for flashbacks. We also shift for moments of high emotion.
“Ha ha! It’s not clear. I didn’t want to make something logical,” he says. “It only came to me late to make it black-and-white – because our memories of that period are in black-and-white. But I didn’t want to give up colour. But every time I use it for a different reason.”
Ozon comes from a peculiar place in French cinema. There is a certain type of film that critics will class as Ozonesque: sexually aware, sophisticated comedies and dramas such as Swimming Pool, Jeune & Jolie and Water Drops on Burning Rocks. But most of his many films don't fit into that category. There was the star-studded comedy 8 Women. There was his adaptation of the great Elizabeth Taylor novel Angel. Now, there is the eccentric Frantz. We can say this about his work: there's a lot of it.
“Yes, I suppose,” he says in excellent English. “It is just a pleasure to make movies. I love the experience of shooting. It’s my job. We are very lucky to have the opportunity to tell stories.”
Next week, he will see a third film compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. That’s quite a record for somebody who once seemed a bit of an outsider.
“I don’t know about that. I don’t really care about the place I have in French society. Step by step I have found a place. But I still have freedom. And I am grateful for that.”
And he’ll keep up the furious work rate?
“Oh when I am tired I will stop. Ha ha!”
Frantz is in cinemas from Friday