A Film a Week - Frantz

Either you love or hate François Ozon’s work. It is that simple. His tricks and quirks can be considered either completely brilliant or totally gimmicky. And he loves them, oh so much. I am a huge fan, just for the record.

In my book, In the House is one of the most effective takes on meta-media, written and filmed. Young and Beautiful was really beautiful in its lyricism and the lack of bourgeois morality. And A New Friend was an outlandish fun worthy of mid-90’s Almodovar. There is no need to go through the earlier works, some of them were and still are great pieces of cinema, and every single one of them was fresh, fun to watch and vibrant.

So what should I, the fan, think when I bump into Ozon’s latest film, Frantz, a normal, toned-down anti-war drama set in Germany and France in the aftermath of WWI and filmed mostly in black and white which amplifies the effect of death and destruction? On top of that, it is a louse remake of one of the Ernst Lubitsch’s lesser-known films, Broken Lullaby, which was based on Maurice Rostand’s play that hit its time pretty well, but feels dated from the nowadays perspective. Has Ozon become a predictable film-maker? Is he going safe? Does he need a break after the tempo of almost a film a year?

Not at all, my dear friends. Sure, Frantz is the least Ozon film ever, but the “bookishness” of the whole thing is just the first impression. Ozon takes some clues from Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, mostly visual and atmosphere-wise, but is still quirky in his own way. For instance, the use of color sequences for dreams and memories might seem pedestrian at first, but it gets the whole new meaning when it is expanded to every genuinely pleasant moment in unpleasant times.

The story starts in 1919, in a small German town, with Anna (Paula Beer in her first major role) visiting her dead fiancé's grave (the title character played by Anton von Lucke in flashbacks) and finding out that someone else has left the flowers there. A Frenchman! When asked, Adrien (Pierre Niney of Yves Saint Laurent) introduces himself as Frantz’s friend from before the war, from his life in Paris. It turns out that Frantz was a francophile and a pacifist, so, after initial hesitations, his family accepts Adrien and welcomes him at their home, much to the disapproval of their fellow neighbours. But Adrien still feels awkward and after a big revelation (not to be spoiled by me, but it is not that unpredictable), goes back to Paris, leaving his German friends confused and Anna half-way in love with him.

It is convenient that both of the main characters speak both of the languages, so the story keeps shifting perspectives. The problem with the revelation is that it opens several huge plot-holes, but that is the problem Ozon inherited from the source material, which he tried to muffle with mood, atmosphere and focus on actors. Paula Beer is pretty expressive and compelling as Anna, but Pierre Niney seems to have more chemistry in the flashback scenes than in ones with Anna. Partially, it is the matter of the character and the fact that he is a war veteran, but Niney sometimes overplays the scared and awkward card.

And then comes Ozon with his trick. This is just a half of the film, but most of the Rostand’s play and Lubitsch’s version. What comes next is Ozon’s original work: Anna goes to Paris trying to find Adrien. And it works on an universal level, pairing the despair of the defeated side with the arrogant nationalism of the triumphant one, reducing the people, the living and the dead, to objects. In a world like that, there were no chance for friendship between the people and the nations and triumphalism on one side and humiliation on the other lead the way to another, much bloodier and more monstrous war.

Strangely, Ozon’s take on post-WWI melodrama feels more timely than ever thanks to his interventions and the recent development of events in Europe. It is Sunday. The second round of elections takes place in France, the key state for the idea of Europe united. The wars between the nations of Europe might seem to be over now, but history has a cynical habit of repeating itself to the ones who are quick to forget it.

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