Frantz (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Secrets, Lies, and Life

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Sometimes lie is less inconvenient than truth, and François Ozon’s new movie “Frantz” presents that tricky fact of life via its somber period melodrama. Although it is not wholly successful in making its points especially during the second half and I am not so sure about whether some of its parts really work as well as intended, the movie is still engaging mainly thanks to good mood and nice performances, and I observed its story and characters with care and curiosity.

The first half of the movie is set in a German town named Quedlinburg. It is the spring of 1919, and World War I was over, but its devastating effect still hangs around the town. While people go through their mundane daily life as usual, the sense of loss and grief is palpably felt from them at times, and the black-and-white cinematography by Pascal Marti further accentuates the melancholic mood surrounding the town and its residents.

In case of Anna (Paula Beer), she has grieved over the death of her fiancé Frantz (Anton von Lucke), who was killed in one of numerous battles during the war. Mainly because she does not have any close relative, she has lived with Frantz’s parents, and she has been like a daughter to them while also being someone with whom they can share their deep, silent grief as well as the memories of their dear son.

On one day, Anna encounters something unusual when she comes to Frantz’ grave located in a local cemetery. Someone put flowers on Frantz’s grave before she came, and then she later sees that person in question when she comes again to the cemetery. He is a young French guy named Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), and it looks like he has something important to tell Frantz’s parents when he visits their house, but then he is harshly rejected by Frantz’s father Hans (Ernst Stötzner), a town doctor who is mostly gentle but is still angry about his son’s untimely death.

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Anyway, Anna becomes curious about Adrien, so she goes to a local hotel where he is staying and then invites him to the house of Frantz’s parents. While the mood is understandably awkward between him and Frantz’s parents, it soon becomes softened a bit as he tells them that he was close to Frantz when Frantz was in Paris before the war. He talks about how he and Frantz often spent time together in the Louvre, and he also mentions one particular painting by Claude Monet, which was their favorite painting.

While he tells Anna and Frantz’s parents about his good old time with Frantz in Paris, we get several flashback scenes shown in color, and some of these scenes, which feel quite intimate, ignite a few questions about the nature of the relationship between Frantz and Adrien. How does Adrien really feel about Frantz’s death? Is it possible that they were more than mere close friends?

As we wonder about his true motive, we observe how the life of Anna and Frantz’s parents is brightened up by Adrien’s presence. Anna takes him to a spot where she and Frantz spent their private time together, and she finds herself gradually attracted to him. Although Adrien said that he stopped playing violin after the war, he plays Frantz’s violin for Frantz’s parents, and Hans becomes a lot nicer to Adrien while accepting him as a surrogate son along with his wife Magda (Marie Gruber).

However, not so surprisingly, it turns out that there is something Adrien did not reveal to Anna and Frantz’s parents. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead that his secret is so transparent from the beginning that you may easily guess it even before he eventually confides to Anna around the end of the first half of the film.

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After that point, the movie is turned into a sort of low-key thriller as Anna decides to create her own lie for not only herself but also Adrien and Frantz’s parents. Not long after Adrien leaves the town, she goes to Paris for finding him, and that leads to another awkward situation as she comes to know more about Adrien, who turns out to be as unsure about his feeling as Anna about hers.

The movie is based on Maurice Rostand’s play “Broken Lullaby”, which was already made into the 1932 film of the same name by Ernst Lubitsch. I have not watched Lubtisch’s film yet, but I heard that the adapted screenplay by Ozon and his collaborator Philippe Piazzo changes several crucial elements in the original play including its main perspective, and his attempt to tell a different story succeeds to some degrees. Under its subdued atmosphere, the performers in the movie give understated performances as ably suggesting the emotional undercurrents churning beneath the screen, and Paula Beer, who received Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice Film Festival in last year, is wonderful especially when her character quietly tries to deal with her conflicted emotional state. While the occasional shift to color mode in the film feels a little too blatant in my opinion, it is quite effective at least during the poignant final scene, and Beer is terrific as silently expressing whatever her character comes to accept and live with in the end.

While less playful compared to Ozon’s other notable works including “8 Femmes” (2002) and “In the House” (2012), “Frantz” is decorated with admirable components, and I enjoyed it although I felt impatient at times during its relatively weak second half. This is not one of Ozon’s better works, but he tried something a bit different here, and the result is interesting enough to recommend despite its weak points.

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