By Elias Savada.
Let’s refresh: the films of French writer-director François Ozon tend to be sly, unsettling, and daring observations of the human condition, whether playing with a 1950s musical mystery (8 femmes [8 Women], 2002), diving into a provocative thriller (Swimming Pool, 2003), offering some froth in the 2010 wife-empowered comedy Potiche, or upping the queasy factor in the darkly comic, sexually subversive Une nouvelle amie [The New Girlfriend] (2014).
Ozon also revels in the duplicity of life, particularly in his 2013 psychological drama Dans ma maison [In the House], and now in his period piece Frantz, both of which celebrate the manipulation of the cinematic art form as a storytelling extension. These two films also have issues in their closing frames (which might explain their runner up status in the César Awards). While the first hour of his latest work is a somber, understated set piece rampant with earthy, post-WWI detail (thanks to the production design of Michel Barthélémy and the costumes of Pascaline Chavanne), its remaining minutes seems to muddle into a Parisian search a la Who Do You Think You Are? (2010- ). The dialogue, so sharp in the early going, eventually wilts as the film drags on too long. This results from Ozon’s script straying from its original source material, the 1932 American anti-war drama Broken Lullaby, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and adding his own third act. The earlier film was adapted from a French play by Maurice Rostand, the title of which you shouldn’t look up because it might spoil some of the plot twists that lay ahead. Believe me, the less you read up on this film, the better you will enjoy it.
Set in 1919 and filmed in Quedlinburg, Germany, a thousand-year-old town, its citizens are adjusting to losing the war and trying to soothe the melancholy within the many dead soldiers’ families, while still festering a hatred of the French. For the elderly locals, the scars are mostly emotional, as the area seems as peaceful as ever, with a gentle wind rustling the through the trees. Among those parents saddened that their son is not coming home are Dr. and Mrs. Hoffmeister (scene stealers Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber), whose only child, Frantz (Anton Von Lucke) died in the trenches and is buried in unmarked ground in France. Frantz’s fiancée, Anna (Paula Beer), who lives with the Hoffmeisters, visits the local cemetery daily, placing flowers on his empty grave, a memorial marker to soothe her broken spirit.
Into their lives comes Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), a timid 24-year-old Frenchman, a stranger who seemingly was a secret friend of Frantz they lived in Paris before the war broke out. He is also in mourning and cries at the same gravesite. His battle scars hide a far more serious reason for his journey to a foreign land. When the secret is revealed, there is further duplicity to be dealt with.
There’s also an persistent nationalist suitor (nicely played by Johann von Bülow) who is too anxious to gain the grieving Anna as his much younger wife. She doesn’t need his attention in her life.
Still, before the truth is out, noble-souled-and-sad-eyed Adrien enchants his hosts with tales of colorful escapades and visits to the Louvre with their dead son. These stories help the German family cope with their despair, bringing life to the blonde-haired boy as if he and Adrien were at play in a French New Wave film. I half expected a cameo from a young Jean-Pierre Léaud.
When the family members’ emotional cores are in turmoil, Ozon filters his film with a stark monochromatic palette. Cinematographer Pascal Marti makes it appear as if the film is a missing artifact from the Italian school of neorealism, complete with minimalist tones. The occasional flashback, generally reflecting on Adrien’s tales – or other more enlightened moments – are generally the only moments of color in the film. The score is bare but effective.
Of course, it’s music that brings the French and the Germans back together, as Adrien had studied to become a violinist. After the war ended, he struggled with the art. “I can’t hear the notes,” he utters in polite conversation, not revealing if it’s a physical or emotional issue. The connection is that Frantz also played. The prodigal replacement son has come home.
Every soul is tortured here – victor and vanquished, alike. For most of the film, there’s a shadow of remorse pacing alongside everyone. A father who urged his son to enlist. A Frenchman who is weakened by haunted visions. A woman wanting to escape mourning’s despair.
The late section of the film taking place in Paris and the small town of Saulieu found me in despair. Such a promising film stumbles as its characters misfire in unexpected ways. But, then again, Ozon likes to do that. Play with your expectations.
Frantz scores high on a thematic scale, dealing with personal and communal issues in post-war Europe. It has great technical values, a well-crafted (if later misguided) screenplay, and a stunning performance by the 22-year-old Beer, who won the best newcomer award at the Venice Film Festival.
Shot (mostly) on 35mm black-and-white film, Frantz seems to have lost itself in the final reels.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).