In the aftermath of WWI, a young German who grieves the death of her fiancé in France meets a mysterious French man who visits the fiance’s grave to lay flowers.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: A bit of melancholy intrigue opens Frantz, François Ozon’s satisfying, well-turned World War I melodrama, a loose adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s little-known 1932 film Broken Lullaby. Visiting the grave of her fiancé, Frantz, in the small German town of Quedlinburg, young, lovely Anna (Paula Beer) notices flowers she didn’t place there herself. It is 1919, and across Europe there are millions of new graves to decorate, and much restless grief. Anna lives with Frantz’s parents, Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber), and appears to spend most of her time cutting a priestly figure on her walks to and from the cemetery in a long, black coat.
The foreign bouquet, we soon learn, was placed on Frantz’s grave by Adrien (Pierre Niney), a tall, gangly Frenchman with sad, expressive eyes and a fine if somewhat premature moustache. Adrien finds he is unwelcome in Germany, and especially in the home of Dr. Hoffmeister, where he presents himself for reasons that are initially unclear. He discovers an ally in Anna, however, who brokers a second meeting between Adrien and the Hoffmeisters. Frantz, it turns out, was a Francophile, and lived in Paris before the war. Desperate for news of their son, the Hoffmeisters encourage the pretense that Adrien and Frantz (played by Anton von Lucke in a series of flashbacks) were not enemy soldiers but pre-war friends. Adrien plays along, furnishing them with stories of dance halls, violin lessons, and visits to the Louvre.
Shot in colour 35 mm by Pascal Marti, most of Frantz plays in a preternaturally crisp black and white (the result, it would seem, of digital tone correction). The flashbacks revert to colour, and it’s unclear what this signifies, except that is does signify. Do Adrien’s memories recall a more innocent time – Europe before the deluge – or a more fantastical one? The first half of Frantz, which follows Lubitsch’s plot fairly closely (though where that film focused on the relationship between the French soldier and German parents, Ozon tells the story largely through Anna’s point of view), has a classical economy: a mystery, a stranger in town, a possible but impossibly complex romance. Ozon’s supple direction foregrounds his delicate lead performances: where Niney’s strong, Gallic features seem to sharpen the camera’s attention, Beer’s lush, recessive beauty has a sort of blurring effect.
Ozon and his script collaborator Phillipe Piazzo made a substantial addition to the original (which was adapted from a Maurice Rostand play), one that finds Anna journeying to France in search of Adrien, who left Germany shortly after revealing to Anna the true nature of his relationship to Frantz. Anna chooses to maintain Adrien’s fiction with the Hoffmeisters, who come to see their “shy and stormy” son in the Frenchman. (A subplot follows Hans’s relationship with a local nationalist group: one member proposes marriage to Anna; all treat Adrien with disgust.) Encouraged by the Hoffmeisters, Anna begins to imagine Adrien anew – though the viewer is never quite sure of the nature and intensity of her interest. Part of her quest seems to be continuing the fiction she now participates in with the Hoffsteins: that Germany and France can love again, and can perhaps even love each other.
Reconciliation is the metaphor at the heart of this tender, involving love story. Frantz loses some of its urgency in its comparatively rangy second half. When she finds Adrien – not a suicide as she feared but extremely comfortable in his mother’s splendid chateau, his childhood sweetheart at his side – Anna must confront the limits of her project, a reckoning whose terms she can’t yet grasp. Art proves a clarifying force: Ozon treats as a theme the transcendent nature of art, its collaborative, unifying powers. Anna accompanies Adrien, a talented violinist, on the piano; poetry, painting, and dance are steady, softening forces against the insidious anthems sung and oaths sworn on either side of the border. (One of this film’s gifts is its translation, via subtitle, of the rather horrifying lyrics of La Marseillaise.)
Anna’s deliverance, and Frantz’s final grace note, takes place within the Louvre, a temple without nation or ideology, where connection across impossible bounds is the highest of human aims.