Frantz (2016) / Drama-War
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements including brief war violence
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stotzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bulow, Anton von Lucke, Cyrielle Clair
Director: Francois Ozon
Screenplay: Francois Ozon, Philippe Piazzo (based on the movie "Broken Lullaby", by Ernst Lubitsch)
Review published April 30, 2017
Shot in mostly black and white, veteran French filmmaker Francois Ozon's (The New Girlfriend, Swimming Pool) expansive remake of a lesser-known Ernst Lubitsch romantic anti-war work from 1932, Broken Lullaby (itself, based on a play by Maurice Rostand), finds chances to use color in some choice places within its story. It's used for effect, as the drab and colorless events brighten up with vivid color when elements of the story fill in with hopefulness, especially as captured classically, and quite sumptuously, by cinematographer Pascal Marti, especially with a certain touch of stark and shadowy German expressionism.
Frantz is set in Quedlinburg, Germany, in 1919, just after the Great War (World War I) has concluded, though the aftermath is still quite fresh in the hearts and minds of the people. A local woman named Anna (Beer, The Dark Valley) is but one of many who are mourning for the loss of young men in the war, grieving her beloved Frantz (Von Lucke), killed in battle before he would return and marry her as planned. Living under the roof of Frantz's parents, Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Stotzner, Underground) and his wife Magda (Gruber, The Lives of Others), Anna regularly places flowers on Frantz's vacant gravesite, only to discover a mystery man has already come to do the same.
It turns out that the man is someone who fought on the side of the enemy, a Frenchman, who later visits the Hoffmeisters and finds an icy reception, just like most of the rest of the nationalist town against those who hail from a country who killed many of their own. Adrien Rivioire (Niney, Yves Saint Laurent), the Frenchman in question, nevertheless, persists, eventually speaking to Anna, then her late fiancée's family, about how he knew Frantz well in Paris before the war, and all of the memories they shared.
From there, the story takes paths too interesting and revelatory to be divulged in the synopsis, including the nature of why Adrien is so distraught about the passing of Frantz in particular. Themes about truth, half-truths, secrets, and lies meant to shield others from further harm permate the rest of the story from various angles. Ultimately, it puts into question the nature and cost of wars and political divisions, finding more love and common ground among enemies than in the chasms driven by government decisions that stokes hysteria among the citizens, whether in a small town in Germany or the most populous city in France.
Very nicely performed by the leads, Beer and Niney, who both have to act in bilingual fashion between French and German dialogue, as well as deliver good chemistry, both as angst-filled strangers and mourners, as well as two people who find an unstated connection that surprises them both. While different in story and scope from Ozon's previous works, there are still his signature psychological themes, such as his understated exploration of sexual hunger and fragile romantic desire in complicated situations, with requisite homoerotic subtexts.
In this day and age when such nationalist policies are taking hold in countries who used to embrace immigrants for their diversity and hard work ethic, the old-fashioned story seems to be ready-made for today's politically charged environment. It's no surprise that those who are engaging in the decisions to go to war are the very people who'll never have to look their enemies in the eye, willing to sacrifice the sons of others in order to resolve disputes they haven't the tact or patience to do through peaceful means. One enlightened character within the film even suggests that soldiers who fight on the opposing side aren't who killed their sons; it was they, themselves, who sent their sons to war that resulted in tragedy.
Ozon's film would go on to be rewarded with eleven Cesar Award nominations, including Best Film. Given Ozon's reputation as an auteur, as well as the political subtext one can read into the film's pessimistic look at putting country above all else, one can see why it might resonate within a European Union that is threatening to unravel. Though is a bit slow in delivery, and contains a couple of reveals that you may be likely to be suspecting from the outset (though Ozon suggests other interesting avenues), as a psychological study of what people feel they must do in order to protect others from grief, including themselves, it's an often fascinating observational work, especially in the context of the turmoil some feel that the world is headed in through the current trend toward isolationism among neighboring countries, with whom they'll likely form the prejudices of ignorance all over again.
©2017 Vince Leo