Francois Ozon’s early years as a subversive provocateur may be well and truly behind him, but it would be churlish to lament their passing when the French auteur conjures up something as hauntingly beautiful as Frantz. This swoon inducing ode on love and mourning is his most assured film to date.
Set directly after World War One in a small German town, a mysterious young man, Adrien (the beguiling Pierre Niney) starts frequenting the grave of a German soldier, much to the fascination of the deceased soldier’s fiancée, Anna (Paula Beer). Visibly distressed, he visits the local doctor, Hans (Ernst Stötzne) but is quickly sent away once the doctor realises he is French.
It won’t be the last time Adrien is rebuked in the small town, the French understandably not the nationality du jour so soon after the end of the great war. Anna, though, is compelled to know more about him. Learning that Adrien knew her fiancée, Frantz, she arranges for him to meet Frantz’s parents, thinking this will be a comfort to them.
Here we learn that Hans is in fact Frantz’s father. Together with his wife (Cyrielle Clair) they sit and listen to Adrien‘s recollection of his times with Frantz in Paris. Up to this point the film has been shot in black and white, but it flourishes subtly into colour as Frantz and Adrien stroll through the galleries of the Louvre.
The switch to colour isn’t a device used to separate the flashbacks from the present, rather it’s used briefly in scenes where passion begins to bubble up to the surface. It’s either to show the attraction between two people, or when art, in the form of music or painting, stirs something inside a character. It expresses that, for the most part, these people are grieving over Frantz, and these brief moments of pleasure lift them out of that mourning.
Soon Adrien becomes a fixture in the town, and slowly we learn the nature of his relationship with Frantz and witness the growing significance he bears in the lives of Anna and Frantz’s parents.
Like reading a good book, the details of the plot and character unfold with great care, leading us deeper into a labyrinth of multiple, albeit, well-meaning deceits.
At a certain point the action switches from Germany to France, which allows us to witness how the war continues to affect those on both sides of the border. Long after it has officially ended, it continues to inflame prejudices and hatred.
Niney’s rise to stardom in France has been meteoric, and it’s no wonder. In the space of three years the Comedie Francaise alumnus has gone from the energetic title role of the romcom It Boy, to winning a Cesar for best actor in Yves Saint Laurent, to this wonderfully complex and compromised role. His coal like eyes glimmer with a tortured sadness throughout.
Equally impressive is Paula Beer, one of the young stars of Four Kings. Her Anna is no less complex, and she conveys the conflicting emotions of the character in ways that are limitlessly fascinating.
Pascal Marti‘s black and white 35mm cinematography is a thing of great beauty, and the switches to colour are not so much emphatic bursts as subtle splashes of natural summery tones.
Given both Adrien and Frantz are budding violinists, there’s a pleasing dose of classical music on the soundtrack, from Tchaikovsky to Chopin, while Philippe Rombi‘s original score is increasingly enticing, echoing contemporary composers of the era, Mahler and Debussy, and adding shades of Bernard Herrmann-like mystery.
Ozon has always been a great storyteller, but he’s gone up to another level with this adaptation of a little known Ernst Lubitsch film Broken Lullaby. He’s departed considerably from the original, and added a third act. The result is a carefully measured tale which culminates with a denouement both unexpected and oddly moving.
Frantz releases nationally on April 13, with advance screenings this weekend
Richard Leathem @dickiegee