François Ozon (2016)
In the small German town of Quedlinburg in 1919, a dignified young woman mourns the death of her fiancé Frantz in the recently ended Great War. Anna (Paula Beer), an orphan with no close family of her own, is living in the house of Doctor Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and his wife Magda (Marie Gruber), who should have been her parents-in-law, and whose only child her fiancé was. Each day, Anna visits Frantz’s grave in the local cemetery, though the burial plot is empty: the dead man’s remains are interred somewhere on the Western Front. Anna is disconcerted to discover that someone else is leaving flowers on the grave, and that this is a young Frenchman, Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney). According to Adrien, he and Frantz were friends while the latter was studying in Paris before the outbreak of war. A likely story: you guess from the outset of Frantz either that Adrien was responsible for the title character’s death or that the two young men were more than friends. Halfway through the film, Adrien confesses to Anna that he fired the bullet that killed Frantz in the trenches. Although it seems Adrien and Frantz weren’t actually lovers, a homosexual potential persists throughout, thanks to a few intentionally suggestive moments, Pierre Niney’s epicene appearance and the viewer’s awareness that François Ozon is behind the camera.
Most of us see World War I in monochrome images; it’s apt enough that this story of the conflict’s legacy is shot (by Pascal Marti) predominantly in black and white. Occasionally, the images are coloured, initially in flashbacks to Adrien and Frantz as students in Paris. The next use of colour occurs when Anna and Adrien, who by now seem to be confiding in each other, walk and talk together in the countryside around Quedlinburg. At this stage of the film, the colour sequences appear to signal emotional honesty. The later moments of colour rather suggest a fantasy of intimacy on the part of the characters concerned. But perhaps neither interpretation is right and the colour switches are no more than an expression of François Ozon’s formal playfulness – a playfulness that knows its audience will want to find deeper meaning in this device (as in Ozon’s repeated references to Le Suicidé, a Manet painting in the Louvre). This last explanation isn’t hard to believe. Frantz provides an interesting couple of hours in the cinema, and I preferred it to the other Ozon films I’ve seen (Time to Leave, Potiche, The New Girlfriend). But style increasingly eclipses substance; the rhyming of the story’s two halves is more important to Ozon than supplying convincing motivation to drive that story.
The screenplay, by Ozon and Philippe Piazzo, is based on Broken Lullaby, a 1932 Ernst Lubitsch picture. The entire plot of the latter corresponds to only the first half of Frantz, and one of Ozon’s main concerns is to create symmetry between the two parts of his film. Adrien’s sojourn in Quedlinburg allows description of the anti-French feeling in Germany at the time. After he has confessed to Anna that he was personally responsible for Frantz’s death, Adrien returns to France. Anna, encouraged by the Hoffmeisters, goes in search of him there and soon finds herself on the receiving end of Germanophobia. In the first half, Adrien withholds his true identity from Anna and the Hoffmeisters; in the second, it’s Anna who continues to conceal that identity from Frantz’s parents and, from Adrien, the loving feelings she’s developed for him.
The patterning extends from larger themes to particular incidents. At the Quedlinburg hotel where Adrien is staying, a group of local nationalists, including Anna’s unsuccessful suitor Kreutz (Johann von Bülow), a Great War veteran, proudly sings the German anthem while the Frenchman skulks in the shadows. In a Paris bar, Anna is cowed by a full-blooded chorus of La Marseillaise. Frantz played the violin; when they learn that Adrien is an orchestra violinist, the Hoffmeisters insist that he play a piece for them; the emotional pressure is such that Adrien stops midway through and faints. After she has finally tracked down Adrien in France and visits him at the home of his dominant mother (Cyrielle Clair), Anna plays a piano accompaniment while Adrien’s fiancée (Alice de Lencquesaing) sings; it’s too much for Anna, who flees the room. Adrien remarks to Anna on the resonance between her distress at the piano and his fainting fit at the Hoffmeisters. This sounds like the writer-director assuring the audience that he’s well aware of what he’s doing.
Ozon’s dramatisation of Franco-German antipathies is superficial, at least when greater depth would get in the way of the scene he has it in mind to create. Anna and Adrien go together to an annual dance event in Quedlinburg. Other local girls there want to dance with the handsome stranger: it’s not clear why, in this small town, they don’t know who he is or, if they do, why his nationality doesn’t bother them. A rapid change of heart on the part of Dr Hoffmeister also comes across as a matter of Ozon’s convenience. When Adrien introduces himself to Frantz’s father at his surgery, the doctor sends him packing. Even though Hoffmeister is too humanely intelligent not to realise that he shouldn’t be prejudiced against the French in general, the knowledge that his son died on the battlefield against French forces makes Adrien’s presence intolerable to him. On his first call at the Hoffmeister home, Adrien talks with Magda and Anna before the doctor appears on the scene. The two women are immediately taken with the Frenchman; we can accept – and, in the case of the mother especially, continue to accept – that the company of Adrien and his reminiscences about his friend console them into feeling that they have not absolutely lost Frantz. It’s much less credible that Dr Hoffmeister’s conversion to the same point of view occurs equally instantly; as soon as Adrien enters the family home, the doctor seems to have forgotten his initial hostility.
At the very end of the film, Anna parts company from Adrien conclusively; she writes to the Hoffmeisters, however, to say that she’s staying in Paris and much enjoying renewing her friendship with Adrien there. The falsehood brings back to mind Adrien’s flashback recollections of his time in the city with Frantz. These moments, also presumably imagined, germinate the gay possibilities of the story: when they rise from their seats to dance with two girls, Frantz (Anton von Lucke) and Adrien look as if they’re doing this as a social duty; their eyes express regret that their own intimacy is being interrupted. Even if the actual relationship of Frantz and Adrien was confined to the field of battle, it’s hard to ignore their physical proximity, as Adrien dives into a trench to avoid a shell and lies close to Frantz’s corpse, gently brushing blood and soil from the dead man’s face with his hand. Although Pierre Niney is a striking figure, the women in Frantz make a stronger impression than do the men. Paula Beer, only twenty-one at the time, is a quietly magnetic central presence. That she compels attention without expressing too much of what Anna is thinking or feeling is presumably just what François Ozon wanted. Magda Gruber is very persuasive in the more straightforward role of Frantz’s mother.
19 May 2017