It’s safe to say Paul Verhoeven and François Ozon are among the best European filmmakers today. Another “safe” thing to say—each can be quite outrageous. Among Verhoeven’s films are popular American productions like Basic Instinct, Total Recall and Starship Troopers (each exceptional genre fare), but his earlier Dutch films like The 4th Man, Turkish Delight and Spetters surpass the conventional. And remember: Verhoeven made Showgirls, definitely (and blessedly) one of a kind.
Ozon’s films—like Swimming Pool, Criminal Lovers and See the Sea—may not be as wild as Verhoeven’s, but they’re nowhere near routine.
In short, Verhoeven and Ozon are often original, always interesting and usually terrific. Their last two films, both in 2016, meet those standards.
Elle (translated as “she” or “her”) is Verhoeven’s first French-language and his first feature-length film since the excellent ’06 WWII drama Black Book. Curiously, Frenchman Ozon’s Frantz takes place mostly in Germany with a mostly native German cast. Except for these odd shifts and one-word titles, each representing a gender, the films are wholly dissimilar in plot and character.
Isabelle Huppert scored a well-deserved Oscar nod for title character Elle, middle-aged Michèle who, in the film’s shocking opening scene, is brutally raped by a masked intruder. After he leaves, Michèle composes herself, gets tested for venereal disease, and gets on with her fairly complicated life.
The rapist, though, isn’t through with her. Nor, as it turns out, is she with him.
Difficult to label with a genre, Elle has elements of a traditional thriller (who is the mysterious rapist?) in its exploration of a strong woman as she deals with the sometimes-odd assortment of people interwoven in her life. They are her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), also her business partner, designing highly successful video games with decidedly violent, sexual graphics. Unknown to Anna, Michèle’s also in a secret affair with Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel).
Michèle’s clueless son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) is so madly in love with his bitchy girlfriend, he refuses to believe her biracial infant isn’t his; she’s about had it with his naiveté. More hell for Michèle: her mother Irène (Judith Magre) has a much younger live-in companion and Michèle’s monstrous father is on his deathbed in prison, convicted of a horrendous killing spree decades before when Michèle was a child and, perhaps, an unwitting accomplice.
There’s an apparently happy married couple across the street—a handsome husband and a pretty, very devout wife. Michèle might dismiss her as a religious nut, but the hunky hubby is fair game.
And don’t forget about the unknown but obsessive rapist.
Blending elements of a thriller with social satire, psychological drama and a comedy of manners, Verhoeven delivers the unexpected in Elle with Isabelle Huppert (France’s answer to Meryl Streep) in a sometimes witty, sometimes disturbing, but always convincing performance.
Frantz might be even better. It’s certainly more affecting and touching, its characters more sympathetic and appealing than the fascinating wild cards of Elle.
Set in post-WWI Germany, the story is about young Frenchman Adrien (Pierre Niney) who comes to Germany to pay his respects at the grave of German soldier Frantz Hoffmeister. In the course of his visit, he meets Frantz’s parents Hans and Magda (Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber) as well as Anna (Paula Beer), the dead man’s grieving fiancée.
Unwelcome by resentful townspeople, at first Adrien is also rejected by Anna and the Hoffmeisters. Soon, though, the grieving family realizes Adrien’s guilt and sorrow reflect their own.
Reflecting bitterness and loss on both sides of the war, Frantz is at heart a love story, but far from a usual one. Watching it, you may think you know where it’s going, but I suspect you’re in for a surprise.
Filmed mostly in somber black-and-white, echoing the postwar mood, the images sometimes morph into color, usually along with the happiness of memory. It’s a marvelous technique, enhancing the complex story and its universal theme.
The concluding shot especially is as masterful and memorable as the final scene of Cinema Paradiso.
Beautiful, moving and quite credible, Frantz recalls for me two personal favorites with similar themes—2013’s Polish Oscar winner Ida and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (’04) with Audrey Tautou. Frantz is an apt companion piece to both.