Certainly among the top five greatest existential mysteries are the questions "Why are we here?", "Where do we go after we die?" and "What's going on in our heads?" Reality, memory, and wishful thinking often blur, helped along by stormy emotions. With his new film Frantz, François Ozon plunges into these depths, playfully crafting a mystery with immediate practical questions as well as the eternal mysteries of the human heart and mind.
Frantz takes as its basis the 1932 Pre-Code film Broken Lullaby, which in turn adapted Maurice Rostand's play L'homme que j'ai tué. As adapted by Ozon and Philippe Piazzo, the story takes place mostly in Quedlinburg, Germany in 1919. Europe continues to reel from the First World War, with nationalism just another word for hatred of the so-called enemy. And so, when a Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney) begins frequenting the grave of a fallen German soldier named Frantz, he unearths freshly buried resentments.
When Frantz's erstwhile fiancee Anna (Paula Beer) spots Adrien leaving flowers on Frantz's sadly empty plot, a not-quite-placeable dread begins to rise in her. Soon, Adrien enters into the lives of Anna and Frantz's parents Dr. Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber), with whom she now lives. Adrien explains that he was a bosom friend to Frantz (portrayed in flashbacks by Anton von Lucke) in gay Paris, when Frantz was stationed there, but there's obviously more to his story than meets the eye.
As Anna plies for information about Frantz's lost time at war, she finds herself drawn to Adrien. He, too, is a sensitive soul struggling with survivor's guilt, and a not unattractive young man who qualifies as a compelling link to her lost love. Of course, certain truths about Frantz and Adrien will out, further complicating the burgeoning relationships between Adrien and Anna, and Adrien and Frantz's parents, not to mention the tenuous codependence between Anna and the Hoffmeisters.
Frantz unfolds at a stately pace, with a controlled mood fostered by psychologically incisive performances all around, and mostly in luminous black-and-white. Interjections of color—and the narrative implications of them—are but one way in which Ozon creates and subverts expectations. For those familiar with the filmmaker, certain of those expectations have to do with this being an Ozon film. At this point, though, Ozon enthusiasts should know well enough to expect the unexpected from the director of In the House, The New Girlfriend, and Swimming Pool.
Ozon remains interested in the stories people tell to one another, the horrible truths and the comfortable lies. In Frantz, the audience cannot always be sure, at any given moment, which is which. Even after clarifying revelations, questions remain about the borders between countries and between people, about the mysteries of war, love and understanding.