Celebrated French director François Ozon (The New Girlfriend, Swimming Pool, Under the Sand) turns his attention briefly away from France, toward a small town in post-World War I Germany, focusing on a family deeply entrenched in grief. Beautifully shot in black and white, Frantz focuses on an older couple Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and wife Magda (Marie Gruber), whose son Frantz was killed by the French during the war. His body was buried in a mass grave on the battlefield in France, but there is a small marker at the church near their home. The Hoffmeisters live with Frantz’s fiancé, Anna (Paula Beer, who won an award at the Venice Film Festival for her performance), who is so overwhelmed with grief that she visits his grave often and had no idea where her life is going next.
One day, she finds fresh flowers on the grave and later that day, someone rings their bell but no one is there when they answer. She discovers there is a Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney) staying at the local inn near her. When she finally confronts him at the grave site, he confesses to having been great friends with Frantz before the war, and that he came to Germany to meet the family Frantz talked so much about. He dines with them, raising the ire of many of the locals, most of whom lost sons in the war and hate anyone French. To add to the scandal Adrien’s visit has caused, Anna has received an unwanted marriage proposal from a local weasel, Kreutz (Johann von Bülow), who gets jealous at how happy she seems around this handsome young man, who also plays violin like Frantz did.
One of the loveliest aspects to Ozon’s movie (which he co-wrote with Philippe Piazzo and is based on the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch-directed film Broken Lullaby) is the sparing but important use of color, which only seems to occur when people onscreen are experiencing joy (which is infrequently at best). When Anna (on piano) and Adrien play together in the Hoffmeisters’ living room, the parents are washed over with memories of their son, and the screen suddenly shows us their home in color for the only time. Also, all of the flashbacks of Frantz and Adrien hanging out in Paris are in color. And as soon as the moment passes, the black-and-white sadness slams back into place.
Naturally, things with Adrien are not all that they seem, and he eventually confesses the true nature of his relationship with Frantz to Anna, who wisely realizes that telling the truth to Frantz’s parents would ruin them, and she opts to lie to them about Adrien when he heads back to Germany suddenly. But the film’s final act is its most curious and mysterious, as Anna heads to France for the first time in her life, in search of Adrien, with whom she has now fallen in love with. What she finds further deepens the film, but also opens up Anna’s small world as she takes in various locations in and around Paris looking for Adrien but also retracing some of the places Frantz visited in his younger days, allowing her to feel closer to him and the places he loved, and in turn making her fall in love with France as well.
When Anna finally finds Adrien, there’s an awkward visit at his mother’s near-palatial home and with a kind but wise woman named Fanny (Alice de Lencquesaing). Frantz is about the journey out of mourning, and that as strange as such a road might be, it’s the one that needs to be taken. The stark and sorrowful cinematography by Pascal Marti truly sets the tone of every moment and gives the movie a timeless quality. Not surprisingly, Beer’s performance is layered and quite extraordinary as she comes to terms with the way her life might go forward if she doesn’t rise up from her depression and find someone or something to help her love again. It’s a quietly devastating work that follows an unpredictable and touching path that teaches us a great deal about grieving and learning to live again.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema and The Wilmette Theatre.