Few films announce themselves as succinctly with an opening image as Frantz does. In the foreground: green leaves and pink flowers waving in the breeze. In the distance: a provincial German town draped in monochromatic black and white. In this single image, director François Ozon announces his intentions; what is to follow is a collision of past and present, memory and reality, deception and truth.
That collision takes place in the gravest of all locations, a cemetery. Here, Anna (Paula Beer) has come to pay her respects to her recently deceased fiancée, Frantz, killed in the trenches of World War I. Much to her surprise, flowers have already been placed on his grave. Who visited her beloved, she asks the gravedigger. He replies by holding up a Franc coin and spitting in disgust.
The year is 1919, and German repulsion for the victorious French is at an all-time high. That mysterious French visitor is Adrien (Pierre Niney), a man who claims to be Frantz’s closest friend and is merely paying his respects. Anna invites Adrien to meet Frantz’s parents, and he charms them with stories from his time as a student in Paris with Frantz. Even though Frantz’s father belongs to a vocal and radical anti-French political group, he welcomes Adrien into his home and life. Despite their differing nationalities, he sees that the children pay dearly for the sins of their fathers, and this war was their most egregious sin.
Little by little, Anna falls for the handsome Frenchman, as do Frantz’s parents, but Adrien harbors a secret, one that will wrap up Anna entirely. Everybody lies. Some to others, others to themselves, but every lie is different. Some lies are told in favor of protection, others for deception. Either way, the truth will come out, and all will be devastated.
Loosely based on the 1932 American movie Broken Lullaby, Frantz is expertly directed by Ozon in a twisty manner, one that keeps viewers guessing until the final seconds. That’s not to say Frantz is a mystery to be resolved, but it is a ghost story, haunted by not only Frantz but by all the sons of France and Germany who were lost during the Great War.
Unfortunately, this mourning will not bring about any resolution. Looking at these events with the privilege of history, we can see the seeds of another war being sown. At one point, a Parisian café burst into a vociferous rendition of “La Marseilles” at the sight of decorated officers. Though Anna finds herself on enemy soil, she must bear witness to this showing of victorious patriotism. One cannot help but think back to an earlier scene where Frantz’s father cowered in a pub corner with a group of defeated German patriots, plotting their return.
It was not enough that Germany was defeated in the war; they had to be humiliated as well. That is the sad truth that Anna faces as she travels from Germany to France, searching for an explanation. Fortunately for Anna, she can transcend that humiliation and find a truth worth living for.
Directed by François Ozon
Written by François Ozon, Philippe Piazzo
Based on the film, Broken Lullaby, written by Ernst Lubitsch, Reginald Berkeley, Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda, and the play by Maurice Rostand
Produced by Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer, Stefan Arndt, Uwe Schott
Starring: Paula Beer, Anton von Lucke, Pierre Niney, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bülow
Music Box Films, Rated PG-13, Running time 113 minutes, Premiered Sept. 3, 2016 at the Telluride Film Festival.