Frantz, François Ozon’s riff on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film Broken Lullaby, is the kind of emotionally-rich and visually confident work rarely seen in modern movies. Remarkable still is that despite such mainstream audience repellants as black and white photography, a period setting and subtitles, it’s just as captivating as its explosion-heavy blockbuster counterparts, if not more so.
Recalling Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon in its look, setting and characters’ (soon-to-be tragically) strong nationalist stance, the film centers on beautiful early 20something Anna (Paula Beer), who lives in the German village of Quedlingburg with Magda (Marie Gruber) and Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner), her would-be in-laws had her titular fiancé not perished in The Great War.
On her seemingly daily visit to her beloved’s grave, Anna notices fresh flowers already adorning the headstone and learns from the cemetery groundskeeper that they were placed there by a Frenchman. Breaking through the town’s strong anti-France sentiment, woven from parents loathing anyone from the country responsible for their sons’ deaths, she confronts the foreigner, discovering his name is Adrien (Pierre Niney) and that he knew Frantz when the two young men were in Paris before the war.
Well versed in the somber potential of B&W, Ozon prominently features his central cast’s inherently expressive faces, each of which would feel at home in the silent era. But as Anna and the Hoffmeisters welcome Adrien into their home at different speeds and find their spirits lifted by his memories of their dearly departed, Frantz magnificently transitions to color, only to fade back moments later.
While deciphering whether this ersatz Frantz is telling the truth yields plentiful suspense, figuring out what draws the characters out of their two-toned world is a compelling mystery all its own. Scenes from the past – including glimpses of Frantz and Adrien in Paris and trench combat even more visceral than James Gray’s renderings in The Lost City of Z – being in color make sense from a chronological stance, but the sudden present-day shifts are more difficult to unravel.
Incapable of inspiring these changes is Kreutz (Johann von Bülow), the film’s standard wealthy, shortsighted bachelor. Confident he’s Anna’s best option for a husband despite her lack of interest in him, he does his best to send Adrien packing but thankfully doesn’t revert to the type of mustache-twirling villainy typical of such characters.
Ozon doesn’t give Kreutz the chance, instead sending Adrien back home once his actual connection to Frantz is revealed, then having Anna follow at the Hoffmeisters’ request. The initial mystery solved, a new, equally satisfying one arises via her amateur sleuthing, a complicated assignment whose outcome demands to be experienced and won’t be spoiled here.
Grade: A-minus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photo: Jean-Claude Moireau-Foz/Courtesy of Music Box Films)