Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Francois Ozon
Stars: Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stotzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bulow, Anton bon Lucke, Cyrielle Claire, Alice de Lencquesaing.
The prolific Francois Ozon is one of France’s most stylish and intriguing filmmakers, especially with visually sumptuous melodramas like Swimming Pool winning great critical acclaim and reaching international audiences. His films deal with sex and death, and often have a strong queer subtext. His latest film is no exception. Frantz is a haunting and stylish period romance set in the aftermath of WWI and is easily one of Ozon’s more thematically rich, assured, mature and emotionally involving dramas. There is also something a little old fashioned about it.
Set in 1919 and shot in gorgeous black and white, Frantz is a poignant meditation on loss, love, war, grief, secrets and lies. The film explores the aftermath of war, and the devastating emotional toll it takes on the survivors from both sides of the conflict, and the simmering tensions that still exist between former combatants.
The film is set in Quedlinburg, a small town in Germany in 1919, and the scars of the war are still fresh. Every day Anna (newcomer Paula Beer) visits the grave of her fiancé Frantz who was killed during the war. One day she spies a stranger standing over the grave. He is Adrien (Pierre Niney, from Yves Saint-Laurent, etc). Learning that Adrien knew Frantz in Paris before the war she feels compelled to know more about him, and through his stories once again connect with her fiancé. She also arranges for Adrien to meet with Frantz’s family, hoping that this will offer them some measure of comfort and solace.
Adrien talks about his friendship with Frantz, about their shared love of music and art. But there is also a sense that he is holding something back, a secret he is reluctant to share with Anna and Frantz’s family. There is a growing attraction between Anna and Adrien. When Adrien suddenly and inexplicably leaves town Anna eventually journeys to France to find him. There she witnesses the devastation caused by the war, and she eventually gains some insights into Adrien’s complex and secretive nature.
Frantz is a loose remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 anti-war drama Broken Lullaby, which in itself was based on L’homme que j’ai tue (The Man I Killed), a stage play written by Frenchman Maurice Rostand, but Ozon brings his own sensibility to the material and takes it in a slightly different direction. There was a strong anti-French sentiment running through the small village where Anna lives and this tension and xenophobia is laying the groundwork for WWII. There is a slight homoerotic undertone to the story, but, surprisingly, Ozon handles the material with a strong sense of restraint. Frantz also delivers a strong anti-war message.
The film has been beautifully shot by Ozon’s regular cinematographer Pascal Marti, who uses black and white effectively to create a certain mood and capture that drab nature and hardships of of life and the bleak mood after the war. But Marti also reverts to colour for the flashback sequences to Paris as Adrien and Frantz explore the wonders of the Louvre and the many delights of the city before the war. Marti brings the bustling and cosmopolitan city to life. Music is a strong theme running throughout the film, and the soundtrack is filled with classical music which enhances the mood. These selections are complemented by Philippe Rombi’s evocative original score.
Ozon tends to ascribe ambiguous motives to many of his characters, and here he slowly teases out details about the characters. We learn that Adrien shot Frantz and killed him in the trenches during one battle. He is plagued by a sense of guilt. Niney is a rising star of French cinema, and Ozon uses his classical good looks to good effect here. He brings a hint of vulnerability to his nuanced performance as the emotionally tormented Adrien. Beer brings a heart broken and world weary quality to her performance.
Ozon gives us a strong sense of time and place as he pays attention to period detail. Technical contributions are all superb, as Michel Barthelemy’s production design and Pascaline Chavanne’s costumes are all authentically realised allowing us to immerse ourselves as we are slowly seduced by the lush visuals and romanticism.