Frantz is a detour from what we’ve come to expect from François Ozon. Rather than capture sexuality, wit, and subversion of gender norms, Frantz is a somber melodrama that occurs in the time immediately following the First World War. It is one of Ozon’s most understated films.
The film centers on the character of a widow, Anna (Paula Beer), who discovers a Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney), who places flowers on the grave of her deceased lover Frantz (Anton von Lucke). Frantz had died a soldier of the Central Powers. The exact relation between Adrien and Frantz is initially left unclear, but in time Anna meets Adrien and introduces him to Frantz’s parents whom she had been living with.
Adapted from the Ernst Lubitsch drama Broken Lullaby, Frantz turns the story on its head as Ozon places the climax of Lubitsch’s film (how the characters of Frantz and Adrien came to meet) directly at the center of his film, effectively splitting the film into two halves. Ozon makes the creative choice to shoot in black-and-white with the exception of certain scenes that are shot in faint pastel color. For these reasons, Frantz reminds me of the narrative experimentation of Ingmar Bergman and his shared horror of warfare in Persona and Shame.
As a dismayed response to surges in nationalism within the past few years (the film was written shortly after the Charlie Hebdo shooting), Frantz is Ozon’s take on post-war guilt. Each character has a regret that lingers close to their hearts and each makes the effort to find closure. Most noticeably, the father of Frantz, Doktor Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner), initially despises Adrien until discovering Adrien and his son shared much in common upon hearing Adrien’s stories of his time in Paris spent with Frantz before the war. Adrien becomes an unlikely surrogate of the deceased to Frantz’s family despite the town’s xenophobia. In one of the film’s most stirring moments, Hoffmeister’s display of pride having sent his son to fight for their country collapses in a speech he gives amongst fathers who had also lost their sons during the war. He pronounces that warfare only breaks families- all fathers are wounded, not just our own.
In the film, appreciation of culture shared between France and Germany is what Ozon implies can unify their people. Frantz balances the use of both French and German dialogue deftly and it is remarked that it is absurd that the French and German people seek to destroy each other despite being taught the other country’s language in their schools. A little snippet of exposition reveals that Anna had met Frantz while she was searching for a book of poems by the German poet Rückert while he was searching for a book of poems by the French poet Verlaine. In total, an appreciation for poetry serves as the catalyst for Anna and Frantz’s relationship, talent playing the violin serves as the commonality between Adrien and Frantz, and the Manet painting Le Suicidé provides a grim reflection of the pain that Anna and Adrien feel following the war.
For those familiar with Ozon’s filmography, Frantz might be a more difficult film to grasp and enjoy just because it is so different than his past work. Nonetheless, Ozon feels much the same way: “I realized ‘Frantz’ is a very chaste movie. I wanted to go back to sex.” And so he will in his upcoming erotic thriller L’amant double.