Easily the most intriguing and luscious-looking film to have hit theaters in some time, Frantz finds prolific French director François Ozon (8 Women, Swimming Pool) leading with his chin.
It takes a brave, even foolhardy, director to attempt a remake of anything made first by a master director of the order of Ernst Lubitsch, but that’s precisely what Ozon has done with this beautiful melodrama “freely inspired” by one of Lubitsch’s lesser known films, the 1932 World War I movie Broken Lullaby (also known as The Man I Killed), itself based on a Maurice Rostand play. Set in 1919 Germany and France, the sumptuous, mournful, wonderfully shifty film—which owes as much to Alfred Hitchcock as it does Lubitsch—frequently switches from black and white to color and back again to delightfully distracting effects.
A gravely beautiful young German woman named Anna (Paula Beer) has lost her beloved fiancé Frantz (Anton von Lucke) in the trenches during the war and while faithfully visiting his gravesite, she becomes intrigued by a mysterious French soldier and symphony violinist named Adrien (Pierre Niney) who leaves roses near his tombstone. Eventually, the haunted, fragile Adrien becomes a frequent visitor to the home of the dead soldier’s anguished parents (Ernst Stotzner, Marie Gruber), with whom Anna lives. Adrien slowly reveals his unlikely wartime friendship with Frantz, which began when Frantz was stationed in France—and yes, the Frantz/France thing is as awkward as it sounds.
While Adrien narrates, elegant flashbacks resembling tinted antique postcards reveal his and Frantz’ visits to the Louvre, their dances with pretty young women in cafés, violin sessions, pacifism and shared love of a certain bleakly compelling painting of Manet’s, as well as the poetry of Verlaine.
The potentially homoerotic implications are left wispy but they’re certainly present. With anti-German nationalism and xenophobia at a pinnacle in France (and, of course, anti-French sentiments at a boil in Germany), Anna and her dead fiance’s father are initially suspicious of Adrien. “Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer,” he says. Over time, succumbing to Adrien’s charm, those feelings shift and jagged corners mutate into much more complicated emotions. Frantz’s heartsick parents and fiance begin to welcome and find comfort in Adrien’s visits. When a whopper of a twist has Adrien fleeing Germany, he begins sending back letters that Anna burns without reading.
After conciliatory letter she writes him comes back “return to sender,” Anna tracks down Adrien to his family estate and becomes aggressive and obsessive in a manner recalling a character out of a 1940s melodrama. It’s in this second half when Frantz becomes something odder and more somber. Enter a meditation on how grief can warp hearts and how lies can be as kind as they can be cruel, especially for those desperate for forgiveness and redemption.
The performances of Beer and Niney, tricky roles that not only owe a debt to Broken Lullaby but also the ‘40s-era wartime melodrama Love Letters, are deft, intelligent and alluring. Every element of the deliberately paced film immerses us in period detail and, man, does it work. The crystalline cinematography by Pascal Marti (a frequent Ozon collaborator), Bernard Herrmann-esque musical score by Philippe Rombi (another Ozon returnee), and impeccable Secessionist production design and set decoration work their magic.
A film with this many twists and turns eclipses plot description. Let’s ultimately say Frantz is a great-looking thriller, an oddball throwback that delivers a not always subtle elbow in the ribs to our era of alternative facts and the ugly rise of nationalism.