Film Review: Frantz

An intriguing and deceptively straightforward period melodrama .
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Not just one of France’s most acclaimed filmmakers, François Ozon is also a master of versatility. He has embraced a variety of genre tendencies and range of tones for his films, whether drama, comedy, romance, mystery or musical, and even fused many of these elements within a single work. (His Potiche, In the House, Swimming Pool, Under the Sand and 8 Women serve as just a few acclaimed examples.) Yet his films emerge seamless, organic, original and surprising, with Frantz another impressive example.

Here, Ozon dares a period piece with a brutal if brief war battle. In another break, he tries his hand at black-and-white (although occasionally yielding to color to further exploit the widescreen capture). Recalling a Daphne Du Maurier yarn, the film simmers with mystery, longing and menacing portents but is unexpectedly quiet and patient in its exposé of lies and their consequences.

The richness of the film aside, its story arc is deceptively conventional. Frantz begins teasingly as it suggests the evolution of an unlikely romance or another anti-war screed or maybe an examination of Germany’s extremist roots. These issues lurk, but that’s not what’s going on.

Just after World War I in 1919 in a small German village, young Anna (Paula Beer, who won a Venice Film Festival award for her indelible big-screen debut) makes regular visits to the grave of her late, beloved fiancé Frantz (Anton von Lucke), recently killed in battle. (“Franz” is the correct German spelling of the name, but Ozon says he used the other spelling to reflect the character’s love of things French.)

Surprised on one visit to discover that an unknown person has left flowers for Frantz, she shares this mystery with Frantz’s parents, Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner), a stern bourgeois with harsh feelings towards the French victors, and wife Magda (Marie Gruber), a compassionate and dutiful woman, also grieving the loss of their only child. As Anna has no family, she lodges as a daughter in their comfortable home.

On another visit to the cemetery, she encounters young Frenchman Adrien (Pierre Niney, so memorable for his starring role in Yves Saint Laurent), the soft-spoken bearer of flowers who tells her he was a close friend of Frantz’s when they were both in Paris. Anna brings him to Frantz’s parents, where warm exchanges eventually transpire after the sensitive and bereaved Adrien talks of how the two young men shared a common love of French poetry, paintings and the violin (seen in flashbacks).

Initially making Hoffmeister’s reconciliation with Adrien difficult is his cordial acquaintance with Kreutz (Johann von Bülow), an avid anti-French proto-fascist gentleman caller in the village eager to marry Anna. He and Hoffmeister regularly meet at the local tavern with fellow travelers also deeply embittered by Germany’s brutal war defeat. Because of such deep-seated anger, Adrien’s brief stay in the town is tense and at times explosive but long enough for the parents and Anna to grow fond of him.

Adrien and Anna grow closer, also enjoying the pastoral beauty of the village’s fields and rivers. Seeming to bond them is their shared love for Frantz, but not all they share settles well. For his part, Adrien is obligated to return to his life in Paris and eventually writes to Anna. Urged by Hoffmeister to find Adrien just as he found Frantz, Anna travels to Paris to reconnect.

But his old address is no longer good, so Anna embarks on a hunt which, via serendipitous clues, enables her to locate him, but in unexpected circumstances. The discovery leads to encounters with Adrien’s elegant mother (Cyrielle) and his confident, guarded fiancée Fanny (Alice De Lencquesaing) and finally clarity about what Frantz is really about.

Performances are outstanding, as is the realistic, nostalgic production design shimmering in both black-and-white and color that evokes post-war Paris and the German village. Visual references stretch from the works of German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, another edgy early-1900s German memory piece. Philippe Rombi’s subtle and reflective original score is the perfect complement.

Just as the film lifts viewers with its elegantly told but intricate tale of life’s familiar complications (whether provoked by the living or deceased), it also jolts as painful contrast to the shrill, vulgar, ugly upheaval that characterizes much of the present. Yet, with lies at its core, this period drama is also unexpectedly relevant.

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