Frantz (2016): written by Francois Ozon and Philippe Piazzo, directed by Francois Ozon. Starring: Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stoetzner, and Marie Gruber. Running Time: 113 minutes.
Francois Ozon’s latest work is almost surreal in how traditional it is in its storytelling and style, unusual for someone more known for featuring bizarre psychological or sexual twists in his films. Much like its characters, set adrift in time by their suffering, the movie feels like a relic from another era of cinema; this is helped in no small part by its mostly black-and-white ascetic. It feels like the sort of the classical drama most current historical Oscar-bait works wish they could be, quietly complex in how it balances handling its historical setting, its characters, and the strained emotional ties that bind them to each other in ways both heartbreakingly sad and beautifully profound.
The setting is Germany in 1919, right as the continent as a whole was struggling to come to terms with the full scale of the senseless tragedy that was then called, rather naively, “The War to End All Wars.” Within Germany, many are already beginning to angrily reject their status as national “losers” and the harsh terms dictated by the Treaty of Versailles. Not that any of these larger geopolitical matters are of any importance to Anna (Paula Beer)- she only has thoughts of her fiancé, Frantz, (with whose parents she now lives), one of millions lost in the fighting, buried in an anonymous pit somewhere in France. Wrapped in her grief, she has lost her interest in just about everything in life, including the repeated marriage proposals of one of the older men in town.
The quiet, daily grieving of Anna and Frantz’s elderly parents, the Hoffmeisters, is suddenly made far more acute when a strange Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney) appears at their doorstep, claiming to have known Frantz before the war. Anna and Mrs. Hoffmeister are happy to receive any new recollections of their lost loved one they can get, but Frantz’s father can barely stand being in the same room with him, since, as he himself puts it, “Every Frenchman is to me the murderer of my son.”
Despite his initial resistance to speaking with the man, and despite a general attitude of hostility Adrien elicits in nearly all of the townspeople (the raw emotional wounds of war are never far beneath the surface in this film), they decide anyway to try and overcome the pain and awkwardness of their first meeting. Soon, in small ways, powerful ways, they start bringing the color back into each other’s world (literally!), as if they are all finally giving themselves permission to heal and move forward. That is, until Anna begins to suspect that there may be more to Adrien’s story about his relationship with Frantz than he first let on.
While there is, obviously, a LOT of potent emotional material to unpack here (and nearly all of it is), that is, amazingly, only the first half of the movie. After a first part that could have stood as a great film all its own, the second part develops everything further into a quasi-mystery yarn- Adrien seems to disappear after he returns to Paris, and Anna resolves to go there herself to track him down. I lost count of the number of times I thought the story was going to break a certain way, only to have it take an abrupt turn down another road I hadn’t even considered before. There are so many ways Ozon could have decided to make things play out, but the paths he ultimately chooses and the various fates he selects for these people feel decidedly fitting.
The key visual trick of the movie is a simple one, the use of color-as-metaphor, but it’s expertly executed. Nearly the entirety of the film is in black-and-white, especially the cities and towns, as if war truly had sucked out all the variety of life. Nature, however, is often in color, as if distance from human dwellings allows better detachment from the daily pains of life. Moments of music or brevity in conversation occasionally break through the veil and restore life to the world’s pallet, a wonderful silent commentary on the power of art to aid in overcoming grief. It’s the sort of basic, elemental technique that could easily lend itself to overuse, but Ozon never allows this card to be overplayed.
Much of the film’s thematic subtlety can be found in the ways in which Adrien and Anna’s separate journeys, each one taking them out of their comfort zones and into a world strange to them, mirror each other. It is an unfortunately consistent side effect of war that it leaves bitter feelings on every side. Not only does Adrien have to face barely-concealed contempt from everyone he meets in Germany, Anna and the parents soon start to get their share of angry looks from the townspeople just for associating with him. Anna then experiences her own version of this when she travels to France, getting a sharp glance from a mother in a train when the conductor loudly announces she’s German. One of the most enduring shots in the entire film is of her face through the train glass, watching a ruined shell of a town fly by, its empty destruction reflected on her features. Anna doesn’t actually face that much in the way of in-her-face discrimination once she arrives in Paris, so it’s an idea that I wish could have been more fully fleshed out, but that may have bogged down the film in unnecessary asides.
Frantz has the potential to be its own kind of classic, a work that’s quiet and humble, but still quite confident in itself as it moves us through the strange, winding, paths of recovery and renewal that Anna and Adrien experience in their individual ways. It is a marvelous work, one that I hope to see talked about and remembered for years to come.