Director: François Ozon
Screenplay: Francois Ozon, Philippe Piazzo
Starring: Paula Beer, Pierre Niny, Ernt Stotzner, Marie Gruber, Anton von Lucke
Country: France, Germany
Running Time: 113 mins
BBFC Certificate: 12
To put it simply, Frantz is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful and the story fascinating, but it’s the overall mood which stayed with me, a hypnotic depiction of grief and hope. In the aftermath of WWI, Frantz follows characters on both sides of the conflict as they struggle to come to terms with the losses the war has caused. It’s fitting that the film is named after a character who is absent, as it’s this absence which shadows everything, driving the characters’ actions and bringing them together.
After losing her German fiancé Frantz in WW1, Anna is surprised to see a young Frenchman laying flowers on his grave. She befriends the man, Adrien, who claims to have been close friends with Frantz in Paris before war broke out. Adrien shares stories of Frantz with Frantz’s parents, bringing light to their darkened lives by giving them glimpses of their son as he was. In the moments that Adrien is speaking, it’s as if Frantz is alive again - he’s walking in the Louvre, dancing in cafes, playing the violin for them. But all is not as it seems, and Adrien’s dark secret leads Anna on a journey filled with mystery and uncertainty.
Given the serious subject matter, it’s easy to assume this is a depressing film. But although the characters do encounter hardship, the film is driven by twists and turns, taking Anna through Paris and beyond in her quest first for the truth, and then ultimately for acceptance.
The performances from the actors are phenomenal, but the two leads really stand out. Both ethereally beautiful, Pierre Niny seems about to boil over with emotion held tightly in check, while Paula Beer’s Anna is complex, with thoughts and motivations that lie beyond the dialogue. Despite the intense emotions they portray, both Niny and Beer approach the roles with subtlety, creating extremely likeable characters who immediately elicit sympathy. Similarly, Ernt Stozner’s performance as Frantz’s father is deeply moving. Initially defensive and angry, he gradually comes to accept his own responsibility in his son’s death in a character arc that is no less emotional for being predictable.
Ozon’s unusual use of colour could easily come across as heavy handed, but it’s used sparingly enough to keep it on the right side of effective. The majority of the film is stark in black and white, but during moments of joy and vitality, as well as flashbacks to before the war, the colour seeps in. It’s a bold choice that viscerally illustrates the universal depression and hopelessness hanging over post-war Europe (many characters are borderline suicidal at moments throughout the film). Ozon’s moments of colour show a true understanding of how the smallest things can lift the fog, and how, with work, these moments can stack up until they outweigh the darkness.
One thing I loved about this film was the absence of any moral judgement on the characters. In evoking the post-war mood, it was perfect; everyone has done and endured terrible things, for which everyone must take responsibility. It’s the first film I’ve seen where keeping a huge, life-changing secret actually turns out well. But it makes perfect sense; amidst the shell-shock, any fleeting happiness is worth protecting.
On a wider level, Frantz paints a phenomenal portrait of Europe following WWI. Grief-stricken, devastated, both Germany and France attempt to pull themselves back to normalcy despite the injured soldiers lining the streets and the empty spaces at their dinner tables. Such a thing seems impossible; Europe is changed forever. But through Adrien, Ozon implies forgiveness and unity, and through Anna, a strength that is gradually seized upon, and a determination to find the joy in life.
Frantz is out now on Blu ray and DVD. Extras include some featurettes about the making of the film ("Lights & Costume Testing" and "Frantz in Venice"), a Posters featurette, and deleted scenes.