Frantz: Turmoil and turbulence in the looking glass
by Fabien Lemercier
- VENICE 2016: François Ozon has made a masterfully sublime and accomplished film with a finely honed screenplay, featuring remarkable performances from Paula Beer and Pierre Niney
"We are fathers drinking to the death of our children." In spring 1919, the small, peaceful German town of Quedlinburg quietly reels from the shock of the defeat to the French after World War I, submerged in national humiliation, latent desires for revenge and the inconsolable grief of having lost their loved ones. This is the historical backdrop against which François Ozon, with formidable skill and consummate cinematic mastery, has chosen to weave a subtle and romantic melodrama that cunningly plays with our perception of reality, as if seen through a mirror, and through lies and illusions. Only venturing into period-film territory for the second time after 16 features (his first foray was Angel [+see also:
film profile] in 2007), with Frantz [+see also:
Q&A: François Ozon
film profile], presented in competition at the 73rd Venice Film Festival, the French filmmaker displays all the refined brilliance of his maturity as a filmmaker.
Having initially been restricted in scope owing to budgetary and set-related reasons, the bold decision to use black and white pays off extremely well, and the director thus brings his film in line with the great classics (Frantz is loosely based on The Broken Lullaby by Ernst Lubitsch, who in turn adapted a Maurice Rostand stage play), while he also peppers it with several surprising and gorgeous full-colour sequences (which portray memories or are somehow connected to moments of happiness, in stark contrast with the prevailing atmosphere tinged with death). The distance established by the dominant monochromatic pictures also matches up perfectly with the background to the storyline, that oppressive immediate post-war atmosphere, as each family mourns their dearly departed, and as the maimed victims haunt both countries, worn down after the carnage of the 1914-1918 conflict. Meanwhile, the survivors try to press on with their lives, forever plagued by regret, nightmares, guilt and resentment, their sheer hatred of the enemy still searingly intense ("Every French person is my son’s murderer").
But in this artfully depicted sombre setting, it is actually an innocent young woman, a fiancée – now a widow before her time – that Ozon chooses to focus on. "Who put flowers on Frantz’s grave?" wonders Anna (a breakout performance by Paula Beer), whose life ground to a halt when the man she was meant to marry lost his life ("I don’t want to forget him", "I don’t have the heart to dance"). Taken in by her late fiancé’s parents, who are also devastated by the death of their son and constantly romanticise his memory, Anna is faced with the arrival of Adrien (the superb Pierre Niney), a French soldier who had been a close acquaintance of Frantz’s before the war ("How could I forget him?"), and whose memories of the deceased, which he shares with the family, will soothe their pain and awaken certain feelings in Anna, while simultaneously incurring the wrath of local nationalists. But a journey through the looking glass of appearances also gradually starts to beckon to the young woman, as she subsequently crosses the border in search of the anguished Adrien, who has returned to France. This quest for love is embellished with a rite of passage, which Ozon steers with a keen sense of savoir-faire in terms of plot twists and a magnificent mise-en-scène, seeming to find in the socially repressed emotions of the time the perfect reflection of his naturally distanced approach to the most ebullient of human feelings and instincts. Meticulous and fanciful, Frantz also offers its two lead actors roles to die for, which they duly seize and infuse with charisma and charm. The movie represents the absolute apogee of the director’s expertise and is sure to delight film buffs the world over, starting with audiences at the major festivals. Indeed, Frantz has already pulled off an unheard-of grand-slam victory by being selected for all the most important post-summer gatherings: after Venice, it will be screened at Telluride, Toronto and San Sebastián.
(Translated from French)