'Frantz' Unfolds Elegantly Into a Haunting Meditation on Xenophobia and Acceptance
Franz Ozon again proves to be a most singular voice in world cinema with this deceptively haunting romance mystery.
“Here Lies Frantz Hoffmeister.” It’s 1919 Germany and, in the wake of World War I, a young man and woman, practically strangers, stand together by the grave of a man they both loved. Francois Ozon’s haunting, silky-smooth Frantz follows the bizarre, ever-distorting relationship that develops between Anna (Paula Beer), the titular vanished man’s fiance, and Adrien (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman who claims to have befriended him in Paris before he fell on the battlefield. Like his best film, 2004’s Swimming Pool, Frantz elevates a relatively conventional surface story with an understated but powerful sense of psychological terror.
“Freely inspired” by the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film Broken Lullaby, Frantz takes place mostly in the small town of Quedlinburg, Germany, where the beautiful, broken Anna is living with her dearly departed’s parents, Hans (Ernst Stötzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber), whom she holds so dear they may as well be her own. While visiting Frantz’s empty grave, she’s surprised to find Adrien tearfully leaving behind flowers. Anna introduces him to Magda and Hans, with the latter staunchly opposed to hosting a Frenchman in their home, considering their son died at the hands of his compatriots.
Adrien’s sheepish charm eventually wins them all over, and before long, they’re swooning as he regales them with stories of teaching Frantz to play violin and marveling at Manet paintings at the Louvre. Anna is flustered to find herself growing more and more attracted to their sinewy visitor: she fixes her hair in the mirror before meeting him at the door, admires his war wounds as he lays on the grass after a dip in the lake, has a laugh twirling with him at the town ball. Adrien’s none the wiser, however, as he’s too consumed by the dark secret he’s keeping from his new friends.
The true nature of Adrien’s relationship with Frantz propels the narrative forward in the way any good mystery should, but the real substance of the story lies in the reactions of Frantz’s family and the less welcoming townsfolk to the Frenchman’s presence. Each character is wrestling with their own inner conflict in the shadow of war, and with each interaction, the movie slowly develops into a deeply affecting examination of xenophobia and acceptance that feels strikingly relevant to our current political climate. While the Hoffmeisters and Anna see Adrien as the last friend Frantz ever made, their fellow denizens only see a face of the opposition. The war may be over, but their sons’ lives remain lost forever. Thus, the anti-French antagonism endures.
The story is far more emotionally charged than it is political, however, thanks to a couple of genuine plot surprises and Ozon’s focus on the progressively forbidden, delusional nature of Anna and Adrien’s relationship. The film is presented mostly in black and white, though some scenes transition slowly, gently into full color in a device that at first appears to be an emotional indicator but later reveals itself to serve a more specific narrative purpose. The elegance and timelessness of Ozon’s storytelling, both visually and structurally, makes Frantz exceptionally riveting, at least for the first hour or so. The third act, in which the film shifts into an odd, out-of-left-field procession of private investigating, is sadly quite flat, though the eerie final moments do cap the tale off nicely.
Music is used sparingly and deliberately throughout Frantz, with Ozon instead reveling in the music of natural noise. Every clunky footstep of the characters’ heavy shoes on the wooden floors of the Hoffmeister’s cushy abode adds to the atmosphere and even, at times, creates a sense of tension and anticipation, like a slo-mo drum roll. The beautiful contrast of the black and white imagery is mirrored by the sound and music. The sound design elevates the narrative in a meaningful way, which is increasingly becoming a rarity in modern movies.
Beer and Niney, both ravishing, are endlessly watchable on screen, with each doing a fine job of building their characters’ inner strife layer by layer. They’re tasked with conveying myriad conflicting emotions at once, often silently, with only their face, and they both rise to the occasion. There’s a lack of a certain electricity between them, however, that makes one wonder how the film might have been something very, very special had they found that spark. Still, Frantz is deceptively intoxicating film that further establishes Ozon as one of the most singular voices in world cinema.