Frantz

Review by Amy Bowker

Directed by

François Ozon

Starring

Ernst Stötzner Paula Beer Pierre Niney

Anticipation.

Another year, another François Ozon movie.

Enjoyment.

Outstanding lead performance with moments of real sincerity, but it’s not enough.

In Retrospect.

A much needed but underwhelming ode to pacifism and the futility of war.

A dour monochrome melodrama is the latest from genre-hopping French workhorse, François Ozon.

A convoluted web of white lies constitutes the framework for François Ozon’s latest offering – a mediation on the grief and devastation war leaves in its wake. Despite a penchant for turning his hand to different genres and styles, this latest from the chameleonic director comes as something of a surprise. Frantz is a heavy-handed, monochrome anti-war melodrama whose story flits between a fragmented Germany and France during 1919.

The script is a loose adaptation of the 1930 play by Maurice Rostand, Broken Lullaby. This source material provided the basis for Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film of the same name – a rare foray into drama by a master of comedy, and one which promises to be a tough act to follow.

The film opens in the small German town of Quedlinburg where we meet Anna (Paula Beer), laying down flowers to mourn the wartime death of her soldier fiancé, Frantz Hoffmeister (Anton von Lucke). Intrigued to learn that a mysterious Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney), has been paying regular visits to Frantz’s grave, Anna is overjoyed to learn of his connection to her lost love. Adrien claims to have befriended Frantz in Paris before the war.

In a brave shift away from the source material, Ozon reimagines the film’s entire second half, the subtlety of which almost makes up for its comparatively weak opening stretch. This is the director’s first German language film, and one in which he uses his bilingual cast well. Beer and Niney dance fluidly between German and French as their characters become acquainted – Adrien’s stilted accent serves as a consistent reminder of his otherness, while Anna’s stunning command of French deepens her capacity for empathy.

Ozon makes one other significant break away from Broken Lullaby – he shifts focus from Adrien’s character onto Anna’s, and thank god for it. Beer is stunning in the lead role, almost succeeding in singlehandedly elevating the film from lacklustre pastiche to emotionally charged, character-driven delight.

The film is at its most effective when portraying a family treading-water while bonded in grief, and it seems apt that it opens with a conversation between its two primary female characters and closes with a similar moment of bravery and tenderness. Ozon frames Frantz as a romantic love story, but this in itself is an act of deception. It’s the relationship between Anna and her would-be mother-in-law that’s most affecting.

A final takeaway is nothing to do with Frantz at all, but refers to the great cavity left behind by his passing. It’s a tale of betrayal and compassion, and a considered contemplation of war’s enduring futility. After a year fraught with political unrest in Europe and further afield, Ozon’s gentle ode to pacifism, forgiveness, and unity feels like much-needed tonic, even if it’s sometimes difficult to swallow.

Published 12 May 2017

Anticipation.

Another year, another François Ozon movie.

Enjoyment.

Outstanding lead performance with moments of real sincerity, but it’s not enough.

In Retrospect.

A much needed but underwhelming ode to pacifism and the futility of war.

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