Frantz: Francois Ozon’s New Feature

French director Francois Ozon’s Frantz at first seems to be his White Ribbon. Like Michael Haneke’s highly acclaimed 2009 film, Frantz employs beautiful black-and-white imagery to examine claustrophobic small-town life in Germany before Nazism.

But Ozon’s setting is post-World War I, a much darker period than Haneke’s pre-World War I setting.  In Ozon’s town, the seeds of Nazism are already well planted.

Ozon’s also interested in looking at both Germany and France before World War II, whereas Haneke never leaves his German village. This could have led to a lot of interesting comparisons, but Ozon’s approach, less subtle than Haneke’s, is to amplify an anti-nationalist message that drowns out such comparisons.

A chilling but heavy-handed rendition of “La Marseillaise” is one of several such scenes that try too hard. Although “Frantz” is based on Ernst Lubitsch’s “Broken Lullaby” (1932), it lacks that Lubitsch poetry and feels awkwardly like a “message movie.”

The life of Ozon’s heroine, Anna (newcomer Paula Beer), revolves around tending to the grave of her soldier fiancé, Frantz.  She also tries to keep his bereft parents (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber) in reasonably good spirits.

The whole town, including Frantz’s parents, knows it’s time for Anna to move on with her life, maybe find a new man, but she seems to be as much in love with widowhood as she was with Frantz. She makes it clear that she has no plans to let go.

Enter a mysterious French stranger, Adrien (Pierre Niney, who played Yves Saint Laurent in the 2014 biopic). Anna is shocked when she discovers him also placing flowers on Frantz’s grave—shocked and intrigued. It’s an incursion into the little life she’s constructed for herself but not necessarily an unwelcome one. The two unite in a love for Frantz that transcends the different places they come from.

Ozon brings in much of his trademark homoeroticism to the character of Adrien. We are led to believe that Adrien and Frantz, who met in Paris before the war, were a lot more than just friends.

For a while, it looks like Frantz is going to be an antiwar movie that is also about a woman falling in love with a gay man. But a big twist midway sets the film on a different course, leading to Adrien’s return to France and Anna’s decision to follow him, her motives clouded.

This is a promising debut for Peer, but the character of Anna is too limited to carry the movie. Anna does not have that spark that tells us she does not belong in a miserable little town pining away for a lost love. She seems to fit in well enough, and her boldness in the second half of the film, especially considering the era, comes from nowhere. Even Anna’s suicide attempt comes off as halfhearted—she never seems passionate enough to take such passionate actions.

Anna is also a prodigious liar, even if it may be for the right reasons. As her local priest counsels her, “What would the truth bring?” Nothing good, Anna believes. We get Anna lying to Frantz’s parents, to Adrien, and no doubt to herself. Her character is reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s daughter in François Truffaut’s “Story of Adele H.” (1975), especially in her propensity for lying via letter writing.

Ozon’s compelling subtheme about secrets and lies never coalesces with his antinationalist concerns. There is a lot going on in “Frantz,” many great ideas, but Ozon struggles to unite them.

By Jeff Farr