Melodrama can be tricky, especially for modern audiences. We have seen it all before, and we’ve been conditioned by contemporary entertainment to be detached and ironic about, well, everything. Frantz, the new melodrama from Francois Ozon, nevertheless persists with an old-fashioned romance that doggedly avoids modern storytelling techniques. The characters have depth, and Ozon mostly denies them the opportunity to express themselves physically. There is a deeper purpose here, one that goes beyond homage and experimentation. By setting his film in the immediate aftermath of World War One, he focuses on people who guard their feelings, especially when they go against the national mood. This is a gently-expressed celebration of individuality and misguided hope.
There is brief establishing shot – a small German village in 1919 – and we see it with muted color. Ozon zooms into the town square, draining the frame of color until we only see black and white. Ozon shoots most of his film this way, and not just because Frantz is a remake of the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film Broken Lullaby. Color sometimes returns to the frame, if only to act as a temporary reprieve from the characters who try and abide their gnawing grief. Indeed, the added color is a metaphor for how it feels when the characters forget the war even happened. It does not last long.
Anna (Paula Beer) visits the grave of her fiancé Frantz, and one day she sees a strange man there. She discovers he’s Adrien (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman who knew Frantz while they were both students in Paris. Neither Anna nor Frantz’s parents (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber) seem ready to abide a Frenchman in their social circle, but Adrien is likable and genuine. Soon the family welcomes him into the fold, and yet he confesses a horrible secret to Anna. He is not who he seems.
Ozon does not expect modern audiences to grasp the milieu of Western Europe in the early twentieth century, so Frantz develops its world with secondary characters who are bitter, hateful. Nearly everyone in the village has lost someone – there is a scene where all the grieving fathers meet over beers – and the easy thing is to treat France as their constant enemy. This is all seen in personal terms, without any discussions of treaties or economics, and Adrien’s mere presence leads to minor humiliations.
It is in more intimate settings, like a drawing room or on a hike, where Adrien breaks through the barriers of anyone who tolerates his company. The early scenes between Anna and Adrien are intriguing because they are too civil to acknowledge their connection. A lesser film would have the characters flirt, or go through the motions of each other. Frantz, on the other hand, sees secrets of all size as the way to build relationships. Ozon always most films the characters in medium shots, with few establishing shots, as if to suggest the actors are on a soundstage. This is not claustrophobic, exactly, and yet it gives an old-fashioned feel since Lubitsch would’t have had access to modern cameras or a dolly. It’s an smart technique, and a subtle way to evoke nostalgia.
The big secret in Frantz is more complex than it initially seems. It creates a challenge for Anna, the only one who knows the truth. Should she upset Frantz’s parents, who find comfort in their dead son’s friend? Maybe a priest has the answers? The point of view here is practical, not religious or even moral. Germany suffered too much, the Priest eventually reasons, so a lie of convenience is better than more heartbreak. Anna is not so sure, and yet she is circumspect enough to consider the consequences of war, and how a renegotiation of her values is the only hope for her future.
Suicide is a running theme of Frantz – multiple characters attempt it, and characters reference a Manet depiction of suicide – with the reasoning that no pain is better than any pain at all. Again, the answer to the suicide question is practical. Ozon is not a simplistic filmmaker; his work like The New Girlfriend and In the House all have modern, nuanced characters – the kind who openly probe all facets of their lives. These characters are not sophisticated, exactly, but they are not simple. They are guarded, and it is moving how drama pushes them toward and away from each other. There is no setting in the movies that is more romantic than a train station, and Frantz has multiple train station scenes, each more agonizing than the last.
This film is an interesting companion piece to Phoenix, another terrific postwar film about the possibilities of love and forgiveness in the aftermath of a terrible conflict. Phoenix sees little possibility for reconciliation, as if its World War 2 setting is an innocence-destroying experience that irreparably changes life afterward. Ozon and his co-screenwriter Philippe Piazzo allow more room for yearning, only insofar that his characters wrongly assume that they’ve seen the last of war and death. The War has robbed so many people of their loved ones, but it did not yet obliterate who they are. This is a wistful film, one that believes how civilization and even manners can help star-crossed young people tilt toward acceptance and love. It is a nice idea, even if it is a fantasy, and Ozon has the patience/skill to make it seem plausible.