Frantz explores the complicated emotions generated by the aftermath of a catastrophic war.
By Peg Aloi
In François Ozon’s new film Frantz, the opening frame is a metaphorical snapshot: a close-up of a pink blossoming tree with a black and white village in the distance. On the one hand, the shot prepares viewers for the film’s artful blending of black and white photography with an occasional episode in color. But the proximity of the lushly-colored blossoms also seems to be a recognition of the value of memory, the fleeting images or sensations we choose to hold onto within our vast storehouse of experiences. Through years filled with disappointments, pain, loss, and the routine, these pictures provide rich moments of pleasure and clarity.
The story then turns to a cemetery in a village in 1918. Anna, a beautiful young German woman dressed in mourning, brings flowers to plant beneath a makeshift wooden grave marker. We learn that Frantz Hoffmeister, her fiancé, was killed in France. Anna (Paula Beer, in an expressive, subtle performance) has no family, lives with Frantz’s parents — Hans, the village physician, and Magda — who treat her like a daughter. The following day, Anna notices a stranger leaving the grave. She learns that this is a French soldier who, while visiting the village, sought an appointment with Hans. The doctor, learning of the man’s nationality, angrily refused to treat the man. Magda wonders if the young man might have been a friend of Frantz’s, from his time in Paris before his military service. She learns the Frenchman’s name, Adrien Rivoire, from Hans and decides to meet him, leaving a letter at his hotel.
Adrien (Pierre Niney, who played the titular role in 2014’s Yves Saint Laurent) is a haggard-looking young man, his doe-like eyes and unlined face belying his embattled air of grief. Anna invites him for dinner; initially shy, he gradually warms up to the Hoffmeisters, telling them stories about his friendship with Frantz, their visit to the Louvre, and of a particular painting they both loved. Magda is charmed, and Hans regrets his previous animosity. These memories are portrayed in warm color, as is a scene that takes place the next afternoon, where Adrien and Anna take a walk to the scenic overlook where Frantz proposed to her.
The growing bond with Adrien will end; he plans to return to Paris within the week. The Hoffmeisters are captivated by Adrien’s kindness and the stories of their son’s last days on earth; Anna, in her lonely grief, feels a strong pull towards Adrien. They plan one last farewell dinner, but Adrien fails to attend, and Anna seeks him out at the cemetery. There he confesses the truth about Frantz’s death, which leaves Anna reeling. He says he wants to meet with Hans and Magda before he leaves the next morning, but Anna puts him off, explaining that she will share his confession. It turns out that Anna, for complicated reasons of her own, is compelled to lie to Hans and Magda. They continue to think of Adrien as their departed son’s last friend.
Weeks pass. Anna receives a letter from Adrien that includes a note to Frantz’s parents, which she burns. When her reply to Adrien comes back marked “return to sender” the Hoffmeisters insist Anna travel to Paris to find him. In her search, she learns about his own torment and complicated family life. She travels to the Louvre and learns the upsetting truth about Frantz’s supposed favorite painting: it is Manet’s portrait Le Suicide. Their reunion is fraught with tension, complicated by Anna’s feeling like an outsider in Paris and Adrien’s family’s coldness towards her.
The lush cinematography of this film (by Pascal Marti, also known for Paris, je t’aime) creates a picture-perfect period piece. The references to Manet paintings are lovingly referenced via pastoral scenes set by the water or in public parks. The performances are consistently compelling. Ironically, Ozon is not a director who has been celebrated for period pieces; his best known films — Under the Sand, See the Sea, and Swimming Pool — are dark contemporary musings on pathology, sex, and deception. But his consummate skill as a filmmaker takes to the style of the historical melodrama; there is a psychological subtlety here that is reminiscent of Peter Haneke’s intense black and white period film The White Ribbon.
Perhaps the strongest takeaway from this involving story of love and loss occurs when Anna, in a French wine bar, sees men and women launch into “Le Marseillaise” after a wounded soldier bursts into song. The German characters also reflect this volatile undercurrent of national pride and trauma. Frantz explores the complicated emotions generated by the aftermath of a catastrophic war. Perhaps Ozon, who co-wrote this bittersweet story, is reminding us that — in these times of global unrest and creeping fascism — that our common humanity is deeper than our loyalty to God, King or Country.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online.