It’s a rare beauty, this odd-duck of a period piece from the great French director François Ozon (Under the Sand, 8 Women, Swimming Pool). Frantz starts out as a remake of the 1932 film Broken Lullaby by Ernst Lubitsch, a maestro whose work only a fool would mess with. But here’s Ozon doing just that, taking the second half of the film down a different path that’s sure to piss of purists. The filmmaker is walking a creative tightrope. How do you resist that? My advice is: don’t. There are a few fits and starts, and a palette switch from black-and-white to color. But Ozon is onto something about nationalism, borders and a hatred of the other that’s as timely as Trump.
Ozon’s script, adapted from a play by Maurice Rostand written before the Lubitsch film, is anchored by an image of a Frenchman putting flowers on the grave of a German soldier. The time is 1919, just after the World War I – and the point of view has now been switched from the French victors to the German losers. Anna, powerfully played by German star Paula Beer, is mourning her fiancée Frantz (Anton von Lucke, in flashbacks) , who was killed in the trenches. She lives with her late beau’s parents, Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and his wife Magda (Marie Gruber). Anna is a keeper of the flame, so the sight of a Gallic gent named Adrien (Pierre Niney), the one leaving roses by Frantz’s tombstone, startles her. Dr. Hofffmeister instinctively sees the stranger as the enemy (“all Frenchmen killed my only son”), but slowly warms – as does Anna – to his tales of her soldier boyfriend in Paris before the war, where the two men visited the Louvre and spent hours discussing Manet’s painting “Le Suicidé.” Ozon keeps the homoerotic possibilities between Adrien and Frantz as subtext. And Anna’s attraction to this mysterious stranger leads her to follow him to Paris after they part on a note of brutal truth.
Spoliers would do this spellbinder no favors – let’s just say that Ozon is most interested in the nationalist tendencies of France and Germany after the war. Unlike Lubitsch, whose film pointed to a peaceful truce between the two countries, the French director has the hindsight of World War II to show how mutual xenophobia only intensified the conflict. In contrasting cultural superiority and xenophobia against the healing power of art and forgiveness (is a lie often less painful than the truth?), Frantz is a film of its time … and ours.