FRANTZ. Starring: Pierre Niney, Paula Beer, Ernst Stotzner, Marie Gruber, and Anton von Lucke. Directed by Francois Ozon. Rated PG. 114 min.
This French-German, subtitled film focuses on the relationships among people in the wake of World War I. It is a loose remake of Ernst Lubitsch's anti-war film drama, "Broken Lullaby" (1932). The film received eleven nominations in the 2017 Cesar (French) Awards, including nominations for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. It won the last.
In the town of Quedinburg in Germany in 1919, Anna (Paula Beer) grieves for the death of her fiancée, Frantz Hoffmeister (Anton von Lucke) who died on the battlefield in World War I. At Frantz's memorial grave she is shocked to see a Frenchman, Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), bringing flowers to the grave, saying he was a friend of Frantz in Paris before the war. Adrien has come to the German town to meet Frantz's fiancée and his parents, and to pay his respects to Frantz beside the empty grave. Anna now lives with Frantz's parents (Ernst Stotzner and Marie Gruber), caring for them and mourning with them the loss of their only son.
Members of the town's community are resentful of Adrien's visit - they have bitter memories of Germany's defeat in the war. Frantz's parents, particularly his father, are at first hostile ("Every Frenchman is my son's murderer"), but warm to Adrien when Adrien comforts them with joyful recollections of their beloved son. The tension of the situation reinforces an attachment between Anna and Adrien. An emotionally fragile Adrien decides to depart from the village, after telling Anna some shocking news. Later, Anna follows Adrien to France where the relationship between them strengthens in her knowledge of what has occurred.
The Director of the film, Francois Ozon, has crafted a movie that looks back with suspense and mystery on the events that happened "in days gone by", and he puts deception at the film's centre. Ozon skilfully uses the memories and experiences of people following the tragedy of the war, who have untold stories associated with losses that are deeply felt, and the losses have bred deceit.
The film develops its tension masterfully, and has a powerful ending that (almost) reveals all. Along the way, the plot's multiple twists and surprises alert the viewer to realise that things are not always what they seem. There are no horrific scenes of slaughter and few signs of fierce battle - the main thrust of the movie lies elsewhere. The plot-twists are used by Ozon to hide the truth that is eventually revealed, and wonderful cinematography in black-and-white threads through the film, which switches occasionally from black-and-white to colour, to great dramatic effect.
This is an emotionally satisfying anti-war film that is about hidden personal emotion. Its underlying mood is one of sadness and despair, but it strongly sanctions forgiveness. Ozon invites the viewer to reframe assumptions about the past to look for new perspectives, and find ways of discovering where new hope might lie. Anna re-shapes her life after confronting the terrible truth she hears, and her dilemma is whether or not to pursue the attraction she feels toward Adrien. But we never quite know whether Anna loves Adrien, or whether Adrien is a substitute for Frantz.
Faced with moral uncertainty, she goes to a Priest for advice on what she should do. The scene between Anna and the Priest powerfully raises the themes of honesty, and the possibility of redemption. We are told that Anna should forgive what has been done, but also asked to contemplate that the stories that people tell others are sometimes worth more in human terms than actual truth. This is a moving, multi-layered film about love and loss, and the personal costs of war.
Beautiful to look at, and acted wonderfully well, the film tugs tensely and intriguingly at our understanding of how truth is best made evident to others.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released April 13th., 2017