The prolific and fascinating work of auteur François Ozon can be reflected in both the quality of his output as well as the variety of style and design, from his savage satire feature debut Sitcom (1998) to commentary on society and relationships in 8 femmes (2002), Swimming Pool (2003) and Potiche. Sex and satire in various guises are common themes within his oeuvre but Ozon often branches out to explore different perspectives. Frantz is a period character drama following the lives of its protagonists immediately after the Great War – a perfect example of art and emotion with superb acting and exquisite, predominantly black and white, widescreen cinematography.
Quedlinburg, Germany 1919. Anna (Paula Beer) is mourning the death of her fiancé Frantz (Anton von Lucke) a soldier who died in France during World War I. She regularly places flowers on his grave. One day she sees the shadow of a stranger – a man who also places flowers at Frantz’s memorial stone. He is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman who seeks to find Frantz’s family. Anna has been living with her deceased lover’s parents, Doktor Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and his wife Magda (Marie Gruber), who regard her as a daughter. Although the war is over the community is still reeling from the losses of its young people. Adrien tries to introduce himself to the family but their reactions are initially too raw to accept him. Doktor Hans declares that, “I love Germany but I love my son more,” and announces that to him “every Frenchman is my son’s murderer.” But Adrien eventually integrates himself into the family by recalling his memories of his pre-war friendship with Frantz, with whom he spent time in Paris as a student. He tells tales of their trips to the Louvre and Frantz’s desire to see Le Suicidé by Édouard Manet. “Frantz loved France so much,” recalls Anna and, together with her French language skills and his love of poetry, she develops a strong friendship with Adrien, who later becomes accepted by Frantz’s family, who have now come to understand him. Adrien needs to return to France, but what consequences for the Hoffmeisters and their adopted daughter Anna?
Frantz is primarily about how the past affects the present as happier recollections and moments of optimism are represented by the occasional splash of colour to contrast with the sublime black and white cinematography. The characters’ memories are based largely on their desires and their consciences as their opinions and self-criticisms affect their perceptions of events of the past – the truth is revealed much later. Adrien is introduced to us as the mysterious shadowy character in the streets of Quedlinburg and when he reveals his identity and his purpose for visiting the town it causes problems and unveils the prejudices about the villagers’ attitudes to the consequences of a terrible war. Hans Hoffmeister’s initial hatred of Adrien reflects that of his drinking friends – who note the difference between Germany and France as more than Stein and wine – who cannot tolerate the Frenchman’s presence because of their losses of their sons. But later Hans comes to reflect that it was his generation that caused the death of their youth on foreign soil -“I forced him to enlist, I forced him into battle,” concluding that, “We are responsible.”
The film also contains themes of deception and searching, of finding a past through living in the present. And despite the best of intentions behind any such deception, Frantz explores how the consequences of people’s actions impact both the lives and emotions of others. Anna discovers the true reason for Adrien’s visit and when he returns to France she visits Paris to locate him at the behest of Frantz’s family: “You must find Adrien as he found us.” The characters yearn for both closure and a happy future but doubt lingers as to whether this can truly be achieved.
Extra features on the disc include test shots of the cinematography (some with notable modern cars in the shot), extended and deleted scenes that re-emphasise aspects of the characterisation, a montage of the variety of posters used to publicise the film and footage of the red carpet at the Venice film festival, together with Paula Beer’s delight at her thoroughly deserved win of the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best newcomer. Delightfully realised film-making, Frantz is an emotional and compelling work.