In its best moments, François Ozon‘s “Frantz” feels like a product of old-fashioned moviemaking, the type of perfectly assembled melodrama that would have had audiences grabbing for their handkerchiefs and dabbing at their eyes. Black-and-white cinematography from Pascal Marti reflects the post-World War I setting, but there’s clarity in these stunning images that was difficult to achieve in the early days of cinema. Star Pierre Niney is matinee-idol handsome — with talent to match — and newcomer Paula Beer shows real promise for being so early in her career. But despite all the beauty visible on screen, what’s most impressive about “Frantz” is its script from Ozon and Philippe Piazzo. This is Ozon’s most mature film to date, featuring real emotions and profound themes in an elegant, mirrored structure.
Loosely based on Ernst Lubitsch‘s 1932 film “Broken Lullaby, “Frantz” begins shortly after the end of World War I in Quedlinburg, Germany. Anna (Beer) mourns the loss of her fiancé, Frantz Hoffmeister (Anton von Lucke), in the fighting. Despite no formal relationship with his parents (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber), she lives with them as their daughter, with the specter of their son and her love quietly haunting the home. When she goes to the local cemetery to visit Frantz’s grave, she meets mysterious Frenchman Adrien (Niney). When she speaks with him, he tells her that he knew Frantz in Paris before the war. His presence at once soothes the pain for the Hoffmeister family and creates strife within the small town. As the film progresses, truths emerge as Adrien’s relationship with Anna and Frantz’s parents deepens, with the story moving to France in its latter half.
“Frantz” is a layered film that gently interrogates themes of guilt, the enduring effects of war on the individual, and grief. While Lubitsch’s “Broken Lullaby” focused on the French soldier, Ozon’s centers more on Anna, which allows for a greater sense of mystery around exactly what we’re watching unfold on screen. With Beer’s Anna at its heart, “Frantz” can also explore more of her complex feelings around both Frantz and Adrien. The moments between her and the French soldier are tender and fragile, and credit goes not only to the screenplay but the fine work from Beer and Niney.
With films like “Potiche” and even the lovely “8 Women,” Ozon could be accused of allowing his gorgeous style and impeccable eye to triumph over substance. However, there’s an impressive balance between the two sides of “Frantz.” Marti won France’s César award for his cinematography, and it’s a well-deserved honor here. Not only is each scene captured in rich black-and-white tones, but the film occasionally switches into color to wonderful effect. He captures both the movie’s locations and its actors’ expressions in detail.
For all that beauty, there’s a lot of attention paid to elements beyond the visuals. Though the script occasionally luxuriates in moments and scenes for a bit too much time, it’s an otherwise entirely pleasing experience, despite its often melancholy mood. “Frantz” is an immensely satisfying film, uncovering layers of emotion slowly — both on screen and in its audience — with a rewarding payoff at the end. [B+]