Frantz *** / *****
Directed by: François Ozon.
Written by: François Ozon and Philippe Piazzo based on the movie Broken Lullaby by Ernst Lubitsch
Starring: Paula Beer (Anna), Pierre Niney (Adrien), Ernst Stötzner (Doktor Hoffmeister), Marie Gruber (Magda Hoffmeister), Johann von Bülow (Kreutz), Anton von Lucke (Frantz), Cyrielle Clair (Adrien's mother), Alice de Lencquesaing (Fanny).
Francois Ozon’s Frantz would likely had worked better as a 60 minute film than it does at twice that length. The movie isn’t overly original (the story was made before, by master filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch in 1932 as Broken Lullaby – which is not, to put it mildly, among his best remembered films – Ozon apparently didn’t even realize he was making a remake with this film) – but for the first hour, the film casts it spell, and is quietly effective. Yes, a black and white film that flashes to color to signify emotion isn’t really original, but it works for a reason. This is a quiet story or loss and regret, which is odd for Ozon who usually goes bigger than this. Yet, the second half of the film kind of drags on longer than needed – you keep waiting for that half to build to something, and it never really does.
The story takes place in the aftermath of WWI. The title character of Frantz was killed in the war, leaving a whole in the lives of his fiancé, Anna (Paula Beer), and his parents – Dr. and Mrs. Hoffmeister, who Anna remains close to, perhaps as a way for them all to try and keep Frantz’s memory alive. Into their small German town arrives Adrien (Pierre Niney) – a Frenchman, who everyone eyes suspiciously – the war is over, but the French and Germans still hates each other. Yet, Adrien is there to visit Frantz’s grave – which he does several days in a row. Eventually, he will meet Anna, and then the Hoffmeister’s – telling them that he knew Frantz before the war, at the art school they both attended in Paris. Eventually, Anna learns the real way they know each other – and starts lying to both sides, not telling the Hoffmeister’s the truth, but telling Adrien she has. He eventually goes back to France – and after a while, she follows – but now doesn’t know where he is, and has to track him down.
The two halves of the movie work as kind of two sides to the same coin – or mirror images of each other. In the first, Adrien is the Paula is stricken with grief, which is alleviated somewhat by the appearance of this mysterious stranger. She doesn’t stop loving Frantz, but for the first time sees a life for herself moving forward. Adrien is quiet and mysterious, and doesn’t discourage her projecting this life onto him. In the second half, she goes to find him – and is somewhat surprised to find that for him, life has gone on – he isn’t quite the same person he was in Germany – he isn’t as stricken with guilt – at least not until he sees her. It is a reminder that for him, the war is over – he may feel guilt over what he did, but he has a family and a comfortable life to go back to – and he’s able to slide back into it. The same isn’t true for Anna, who life is forever altered. She isn’t able to slide back into her planned life – she has to invent a new one. It isn’t until she gets to France, and meets Adrien again that she realizes this.
Frantz is a sad movie of course. It is about guilt and grief, and about the monotony of both really – how you are afflicted with the same numbing sadness all day, every day. The beautiful black and white cinematography is appropriate. The flashes of color are a simple way of conveying emotion, but it’s an effective one.
The second half felt tacked on to me – as if the first half wasn’t sad enough, so the film felt the need to really drive home its points. In particular, the lengthy search for Adrien really doesn’t add very much to the film – other than to extend the runtime. You wait for the film to build to something, and it doesn’t quite get there.