The setting is Quedlinburg, a small village in Germany, in 1919. The First World War has just come to an end. Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner) and his wife, Magda (Marie Gruber), lost their son, Frantz, in the war. Anna (Paula Beer), Frantz’s fiancée, lives with his grieving parents. Every day she visits his grave and lays flowers on it, until one day she discovers a flower that she did not leave. At a distance, she sees a man walking away. The next day she meets him at the gravesite: he introduces himself as Adrien (Pierre Niney), a young Frenchman who met Frantz before the war, when he was living in Paris. United in their love of art and music, the two men became good friends.
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Anna loves French and speaks it well, as her fiancé did, and Adrien is fluent in German. She wants to introduce him to Frantz’s parents – Adrien would be a reminder, in addition to herself, of who their son was before he died. Frantz’s mother, whose warm demeanor suggests she may be sturdier in coping with her grief than her husband, agrees; but the stern-faced father refuses. He passionately hates the French, all of them, for killing his son.
Finally, however, his desire to meet Frantz’s friend, who may be able to shed light on unknown sides of his son’s character, overcomes his hate, and he agrees to have Adrien visit – especially when he sees how much the delicate Adrien resembles Frantz in his personality. Hans’ willingness to welcome the Frenchman into his home and Anna’s growing closeness with him dismay the rest of the villagers, many of whom also lost sons in the war, which people called “the Great War” and believed would be “the war to end all wars.”
That is the plot premise of French director Francois Ozon’s film “Frantz,” made before “The Double Lover,” which is also showing in Israel now. As a modest line in the final credits announces, Ozon’s film was inspired by the playwright Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 “Broken Lullaby,” also known as “The Man I Killed,” itself based on a play by French writer Maurice Rostand. But “Frantz” is not a remake of “Broken Lullaby,” for two reasons. First, while the plots of the two films overlap in their first halves, the later part of “Frantz” goes off in a different direction. Second, Lubitsch’s movie had a clear antiwar message and called for universal brotherhood. Ozon, a contemporary director whose work often has a modernist tinge, uses this idea as a basis for exploring how classic cinema – a dominant influence on his own work – expressed itself, told its stories, and conveyed its messages.
I have to be very careful to avoid spoilers in describing “Frantz,” because although the movie is essentially a sentimental melodrama, it has elements of a thriller in it. Like many of Ozon’s other films, including “The Double Lover,” “Frantz” examines the elusive nature of identity and operates on the blurred line between truth and lies, reality and imagination. Once again Ozon is interested in the role fiction plays within the world of his movies and in the filmmaking that represents that world. He delves into these issues within the frame of a classic-looking film, while showcasing for us the components of this mode of filmmaking and its means of self-expression. The ideological and moral ambivalence of the illusion that such films seek to create is emphasized by the way in which the plot of “Frantz” unfolds. This gives the picture its gentle irony, a typical quality of classic Hollywood cinema at its best.
Art more generally plays a representative role in the movie, whether in the form of music – included in the soundtrack or performed onscreen – or in a lesser-known painting by Edouard Manet, which ties the movie’s realist level to its imaginary one. Precisely because the movie sets out from a historical, realist premise – the portrayal of a grieving postwar reality – Ozon’s exploration of reality versus its representations, which raises issues of illusion, imposture, truth and deceit and their role in everyday life, has a prominent, enriching presence in the film.
Ozon has up until now made his movies at a high pace – one a year, if not more – following the tradition of classic Hollywood directors, as well as of the European filmmakers who influenced him, such as Claude Chabrol and Reiner Werner Fassbinder. But “Frantz” took two years to make, and indeed, in its appearance and essence, this seems to be Ozon’s most meticulous picture to date. He chose to shoot most of the movie in black and white on a wide screen, with only the occasional foray into color.
One of the challenges for the audience is trying to decipher the principle according to which color enters the movie’s present and its past, its reality and its imaginative parts, but the way in which this happens is a constant thrill. This device brings the movie’s poetry, which Ozon doesn’t savor too much in other parts of the film (however lovely), into the very heart of “Frantz.”
I’ve described “Frantz” as belonging to the tradition of sentimental melodramas, especially those focused on women, although it is not sentimental, and the emotion that emerges from it is quiet and reserved. Women negotiating with the fictions that have been spun around them have often played a prominent part in Ozon’s films, from “Under the Sand,” “8 Women” and “Swimming Pool” to “The Double Lover.” The focus on a woman instead of on a man is another difference between Ozon’s movie and Lubitsch’s, and once again Ozon places that woman in the midst of a fragmented, reflection-filled reality.
“Frantz” is not an exciting movie; Ozon makes no effort to excite us. Rather, he leads us carefully, with practical and theoretical docility, through the twists and turns of the story he tells. This is a film about endurance, but there is a gaping wound at its core that endurance and restraint cannot hide. The cast, led by Paula Beer and Pierre Niney, respond well to Ozon’s vision, which leads them between the movie’s opposite poles: it is no accident that we repeatedly see Anna, a strong woman not given to expressions of feeling, with her eyes closed, while Adrien seems almost like a figment of her imagination. Above all, however, “Frantz” attests to Ozon’s absolute mastery over his artistic means. When I exited the theater a friend said to me, “Nice work, right?” Yes, absolutely.