Are there cases when a cold, hard lie could cause less suffering and therefore be advisable? Or, seen from a different angle, can fiction be more soothing than the truth? That’s the intriguing notion at the center of Frantz, the latest film from French filmmaker Francois — what’s in a name? — Ozon, who has taken an atypical two-year period to craft this richly imagined and superbly assembled period piece (rather than his Woody Allen-like rhythm of a new feature each year).
Though loosely inspired by the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch drama Broken Lullaby, which was in turn based on a play by French playwright Maurice Rostand, this is a distinctly Ozonian creation. The biggest change, besides having imagined the entire second half of the story, is one of perspective, which has moved from a point of view close to a young Frenchman, who visits the titular German soldier’s grave in the spring after the end of the Great War, to that of Frantz’s German fiancee, who suddenly sees a handsome stranger from the country that killed her beloved lay flowers on his tomb.
Though there are a lot of firsts here for Ozon, with much of Frantz in German and in 35mm black and white, this drama continues the director’s penchant for spinning thematically complex material into highly accessible fare, just like in recent hits such as The New Girlfriend and In the House. It also continues the filmmaker’s long line of complex female heroines and explores many themes dear to Ozon, including mourning and the refuge fiction and/or art can offer in times of crisis. And as usual, the actors are all in fine form.
Though a period piece in black and white, Frantz’s pacifist message of outreach across cultures, languages and ideologies could potentially resonate in post-Brexit Europe and anywhere — cough — where polarized politics seem designed to drive a rift between people(s).
The reserved Anna (Paula Beer), in her early 20s, lives with Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stoetzner), a stern doctor, and his matronly wife, Magda (Marie Gruber), in the small town of Oldenburg (first seen on what looks like a hand-painted German postcard, like the ones that opened Ozon’s Fassbinder adaptation Water Drops on Burning Rocks). Anna was engaged to the couple’s son, Frantz (Anton von Lucke), who died in the trenches. When a local man and something of a nationalist, Kreutz (Johann von Buelow), suggests he’ll “make her forget Frantz,” her reply is a straightforward: “I don’t want to forget him.”
In the early going, Ozon economically sketches the general mood in rural Germany in 1919, when the French were reviled for killing almost all of Germany’s sons in WWI, which had just ended with a humiliating defeat for Deutschland. Aided by Pascal Marti’s supple and crisp black-and-white photography and realistic acting and production design, the opening can’t help but recall Haneke’s similarly small town-set German cautionary tale The White Ribbon (also co-produced by X Filme).
Things become more complicated — and Ozonian — when Anna gets to know the foreigner laying roses on Frantz’ grave, Adrien (Pierre Niney). He’s a Frenchman who knew the dead soldier from France, the country where Anna’s Francophile fiance studied before the war. Though Herr Hoffmeister initially struggles with opening his home to a Frenchman, explaining that in his eyes, “all Frenchmen killed my only son,” Magda and Anna are more forgiving and even curious, as the unknown man’s bond with Frantz must have been quite strong if Adrien has come all this way to pay his respects. The fact both Adrien and Anna speak French and German helps.
When, after some prodding, Adrien recalls the men’s visit to the Louvre, Ozon inserts a first flashback in color. It is also the first time he uses Philippe Rombi’s score, with its earlier absence having reinforced the opening section’s downbeat tone. The result is a scene that feels like an immersion into the warm bath of a happier past, when Frantz was still alive. And since Adrien is the one that conjured the memory, he’s then fully embraced by the family. “Don’t be afraid to make us happy,” says Magda — a sentence that would’ve been right at home in the mid-century studio romances and melodramas directed by German-born talents such as Lubitsch and Sirk.
The discovery that Frantz used to play the fiddle and Adrien is a professional violinist starts an interesting game of mirrors in which some characteristics are transferred between the men, generating a potential amorous interest from Anna. Further adding complexity is Ozon’s use of art in symbolic ways, such as when Adrien and Anna play music together, suggesting France and Germany’s differences can be overcome, if they work together in harmony.
Adrien and Anna’s rapprochement happens during time spent together outdoors, but Ozon isn’t just a fan of bucolic settings. Instead, the director has effortlessly appropriated several German cultural codes to further enhance his story. Some of the trappings of Heimat films, which went back to nature after the urban destruction of WWII, are here moved back to a post-WWI context, and they are combined with references to German Romanticism, which similarly sought unity and the sublime in nature (one shot in particular recreates one of Caspar David Friedrich’s most famous paintings).
The film’s mid-section narrative bombshell — not a surprise for those who have seen the Lubitsch or know the title of Rostand’s play — reshuffles the deck and leads to Adrien’s departure for France. It also asks the question of what good the truth would do for those back in Germany, with Anna asking a priest for counsel and him actually suggesting that sometimes, the truth can hurt more than a lie, and that those who seek forgiveness, deserve to be forgiven.
But Anna’s subsequent trip to France, where she’ll go in search of Adrien, is not all that deep or illuminating until she meets Adrien’s aristocratic mother (Cyrielle Clair) and a childhood acquaintance, Fanny (Alice de Lencquesaing). An unexpected Young Werther-like leitmotif also feels a little too much like a fancy writer’s idea rather than something that’s emotionally credible; what’s missing here is a way in which this serious subject ties in with the film’s overall understanding of death and mourning, fiction and forgiveness.
That said, the way in which Ozon again uses mirror images, which reveal the similarities between the French and the Germans just after the war, or the way Fanny and Anna come to possibly mirror each other again suggest that a master storyteller is at work. And especially Beer impresses in the home stretch, as her character faces some tough decisions.
One of the film’s major pleasures (semi-cryptic spoiler ahead) is that Ozon avoids going in the direction that might be the most obvious one for those familiar with his filmography. Instead, his story is one that’s subtler and digs deeper while it keeps exploring how both political and personal questions are dealt with within a moral framework and how that framework itself is also open to interpretation. If only all lies were this pretty.
Production companies: Mandarin Cinema, X Filme Creative Pool, Foz, Universal Pictures
Cast: Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stoetzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Buelow, Anton von Lucke, Cyrielle Clair, Alice de Lenquesaing
Director: François Ozon
Screenplay: François Ozon, Philippe Piazzo, inspired by Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby
Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
Co-producers: Stefan Arndt, Uwe Schott
Director of photography: Pascal Marti
Production designer: Michel Barthelemy
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Laure Gardette
Music: Philippe Rombi
Casting: Simone Baer, Sarah Teper, Leila Fournier
Sales: Films Disribution
No rating, 113 minutes