Director: François Ozon
Cast: Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bülow, Anton von Lucke, Cyrielle Clair, Alice de Lencquesaing
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements including brief war violence)
Running Time: 1:53
Release Date: 3/15/17 (limited); 4/14/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 13, 2017
Color exists in the world of Frantz. It's rare, but we see it in the film's opening shot. The color is in the foreground of that shot, attached to trees and flowers at the top of the hill where the camera is positioned, and it's a stark contrast to what's in the backdrop. Surrounded by the color of the vegetation and landscape is a mass of gray, slightly rising from the valley. It's the distinct form of buildings forming the circle of a small village in the middle of nowhere.
As director François Ozon moves to the streets of this town, we are assured: This is a place without color. It is a place of inherit dreariness, which exists as if it is removed from time. There is a time, though. It is 1919. The place is Quedlinburg, Germany.
The Great War has recently ended, and as Anna (Paula Beer) walks through the town, buying a bouquet of flowers and staring with longing at an expensive dress in a storefront window, a few things stand out. Everyone in this place is polite but reserved. Communication is kept to a bare minimum.
People here have lost friends and family. There are no young men to be seen, only grieving mothers and fathers, men who are too old to fight or had been injured in a previous conflict, and widows and, in the case of Anna, the betrothed of men who won't be returning. Anna has bought flowers to place on the grave of her fiancé Frantz (played in flashbacks by Anton von Lucke). There is nothing beneath the flowers, she tells someone later, because Frantz's body is buried in France, in an anonymous grave alongside countless other soldiers.
The story of the film hinges on the appearance of a mysterious stranger into the midst of this sorrow for the lost and an underlying resentment for the military loss. He sticks out because he is a young man, who arrived at Frantz's gravesite shortly before Anna does. He laid flowers there, too.
The stranger sticks out even more because he is French. He gave the cemetery's groundskeeper a French coin for his help. The cemetery worker shows Anna the coin as evidence of the stranger's foreign ties and spits on the ground at the mention of the word "French." Other men in town are just as spiteful to the notion of France and the French. That includes Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner), Frantz's father, who, with his wife Magda (Marie Gruber), has taken Anna into his home as a daughter, despite having no official familial relationship to her.
The stranger, named Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), comes to the Hoffmeisters' home, and the good doctor kicks him out of his home office upon learning that he is French. Hans blames every Frenchmen for the death of his son.
He is not alone. There is a group of men who meet regularly at the local tavern to discuss the shame and humiliation of Germany's defeat. Their leader is Kreutz (Johann von Bülow), a wounded veteran of another war, who wants Anna's hand in marriage. She refuses. The sight of her giving a letter to be passed on to the Frenchmen results in more than petty jealousy for Kreutz.
There's a point in one's thinking at which the line between the personal and political becomes too blurred to be deciphered. The men—the fathers, the friends, the veterans—of Quedlinburg have all reached that point. The murmurings of nationalism have become even darker in the aftermath of the European conflict. It's no longer about pride. It's about revenge.
Adrien's intentions, though, seem pure as he speaks to Anna and Frantz's parents. He says he was Frantz's friend in Paris before the hell of war broke out in Europe. He tells them stories of Frantz's days as a student in France—of visits to the Louvre, of violin lessons, of drinking and dancing. Color returns in these montages of memory, during a trip to the country for Anna and Adrien, and while Adrien plays Frantz's prized violin.
Despite the optimism here, this is a story of secrets and lies. While the truth behind Adrien's visit to Germany is almost instantly apparent, if not spoken until the halfway point of the film, the point of Ozon's screenplay (adapted from the 1932 film Broken Lullaby) is not necessarily the lie itself. It's how these character react in the face of the truth and in maintaining the ignorance of accepting the deception. It's how the same lie is told by two different people—one telling it out of self-described cowardice and the other out of an unexpected strength.
It's about strangers in lands that seem foreign, simply because of the way of which they are spoken, but are, in reality, quite similar to home. Ozon makes those connections through color and its absence, such as the way he depicts the memories of Adrien and Frantz in Paris in color, only to have Anna arrive in a Paris that is a drab as her own little village. The men in a Parisian tavern sing just as the men of Quedlinburg do—of country and honor and cutting the throats of the enemy's children. There aren't many young men in Paris, either, which means that Adrien is out of place in his own home, too. He knows it, too.
The secrets continue to reveal themselves, and the lies—as important as Adrien's attachments at home and as innocent as the way he describes a particular painting by Manet—continue to unravel. Ozon frames this story as a romance, but that is the filmmaker doing his own act of deception. As the parish priest tells Anna, a lie told with pure intentions is forgivable. With Frantz, Ozon's intentions are pure.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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