“FRANTZ” My rating: B
113 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
“Frantz” is a rewardingly old-fashioned affair, a love story (sort of) set in the immediate aftermath of World War I and told with a quiet, unhurried perceptiveness that reminds of Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim.”
This Cesar-nominated film from writer/director Francois Ozon (“Swimming Pool,” “Eight Women”) is steeped in love and loss.
Anna (a gently radiant Paula Beer) lives in a provincial German town with Doctor and Mrs. Hoffmiester (Ernst Stotzner, Marie Gruber), who would have been her in-laws had not their son, Frantz, been killed in the recent hostilities. They’ve unofficially adopted Anna; it’s one way to deal with their overwhelming loss of their only child.
Each day Anna dutifully lays flowers on Frantz’s grave (actually his body is somewhere in France); she’s surprised to discover one morning that someone else has been doing the same.
That someone is Adrien (Pierre Niney), a young Frenchman who claims to have befriended Frantz during the latter’s pre-war visits to Paris.
Initially Anna and the Hoffmiesters are appalled. Like many of their neighbors they want nothing to do with their former enemies.
But Adrien’s soulful earnestness — and his obvious distress at the loss of Frantz — softens even unforgiving Teutonic hearts. Ere long the Hoffmeisters embrace the stranger, happy to hear his tales of carousing with Frantz in the City of Light.
Anna slowly opens up to this gentle stranger, who despite having been an enemy combatant still seems preferable to the middle-aged burgher who’s been wooing her…a fellow who practically has “future Nazi” stamped on his forehead.
All goes nicely until Adrien, wracked by guilt, confesses that he never knew Frantz before the war, that they only met briefly on a battlefield, and that something awful happened.
Ozone’s screenplay (co-written with Philippe Piazzo and inspired by the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch drama “Broken Lullaby”) divides its time between Adrien’s stay in Germany and, after he flees and vanishes, in Paris as Anna searches for him. (This second half of the film bears more than a little resemblance to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2004 “A Very Long Engagement.”)
What’s particularly satisfying about “Frantz” is that it sets up audience expectations and then slyly sidesteps them, regularly sifting in unforeseen plot developments that make viewer complacency impossible.
Without a trace of showiness the performers dig deep into their characters. Technically the film is very accomplished.
Mostly the film is in black and white. But at certain moments — flashbacks to Adrien and Frantz’s youthful “friendship” and a horrifying moment of combat, Adrien and Anna’s bucolic strolls, or other moments of heightened emotion — the image blossoms into full color.
As symbolism goes it’s pretty obvious and hardly necessary.
| Robert W. Butler