Cast: Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Anton von Lucke, Marie Gruber, Ernst Stotzner
Director: Francois Ozon
Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Francois Ozon strips away any of his recognizable traits as a thematically subversive and stylistically bold filmmaker with his latest picture, Frantz, a remake of Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 drama Broken Lullaby. The tone here is reserved with striking, yet strangely flat, black-and-white cinematography and characters behaving as if they are trapped inside a nostalgic cinematic postcard rather than an acceptable reality. Most curious of all, beyond the rather predictable story of post-war romantic confusion and survivor's guilt, is Ozon's seeming lack of interest in the material. Aside from a few notable touches (moving from black-and-white to color at pivotal moments, for instance) there's little of the filmmaker's audacious spark or technical bravado. Even in his more recent films, such as In The House, Young and Beautiful, and The New Girlfriend, there was an undeniable auteurist imprint; an obsessiveness, a keen understanding of the characters and their dilemmas which often bled into the overall style. Here, it feels as if Ozon is being too respectful, too safe, too austere; inevitably leading to a film whose melodrama feels muted and whose lack of risk brings everything down to a hushed lull of non-attentiveness.
The film begins with Anna (Paula Beer) visiting the grave of her dead fiance, Frantz (Anton von Lucke, seen in flashbacks), who was killed during the first World War. Her parents, Dr. Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber), are also mourning the loss of their son, which is complicated when a young French soldier, Adrien (Pierre Niney) shows up one day at the site of Frantz's tombstone. Though he fought on the opposing side during the war, Adrien claims he and Frantz had formed a close bond prior to battle. Gradually, Anna and her parents become quite fond of this stranger, partly because his sudden appearance reminds them of Frantz, but also because it seems to help their grieving process. Adrien, too, is seeking psychological and emotional aid, and his true intentions are slowly doled out during the film's languidly paced first half.
The sense of sexual daring, playfulness, and the defying of formal expectations so prevalent in Ozon's work, no matter how flawed, is crucially missing from Frantz. Competently acted (though Niney's waifish channeling of early 2000's Adrien Brody creates little chemistry with Beer) and filmed in unfussy compositions, the film seems to be aiming for existential eroticism buried by social rules, but there's no irony or subversion here. It's just simply the story of a woman drawn to a man she cannot possess, no matter what the circumstances. Perhaps Ozon was attempting to conjure Lubitsch by way of Michael Haneke, whose 2009 film The White Ribbon was also a period piece shot in black-and-white with static imagery obscuring hideous evil beneath the surface. Frantz, however, reveals no such layers. Even the supposed pre-war relationship between Adrien and Frantz (glimpsed briefly in flashbacks) contains a hint of homoeroticism, but shockingly for Ozon, the film carefully sidesteps such things.
A film from Ozon lacking heat, introspection, thematic depth, and aesthetic risks is a tough pill to swallow, but Frantz, for all it's timidness, isn't entirely dismissible. Beer creates a sympathetic vision of a woman reeling from trauma whose inextricably attracted to a man who represents the closest connection she has with her deceased lover, and there are some nicely pitched scenes featuring Stotzner and Gruber as the well-meaning parents. Additionally, the serene tableaus are gorgeous in their own "movieish" way, even as there's something not quite right about how these pristine compositions appear to expunge all activity and conflict to the edges of the frame, just out of sight. Overall, Frantz also plays like those clean compositions; alluring to look at but missing texture, comforting cinematically yet lacking emotional and psychological neurosis.