By Tyler Obropta
It’s 1919, and the world has just changed irrevocably. The Great War has ended, and Europe has begun licking its wounds. In a small town named Quedlinburg in the heart of Germany, a woman widowed by the war visits the grave of her husband, Frantz. But someone’s already placed flowers on it. This mysterious stranger to Quedlinburg is no stranger to the man in the ground: He is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman who befriended Frantz in Paris before the war.
To Anna (Paula Beer), this charming and handsome gentleman is a welcome relief to her weary, grieving heart. Her family and the rest of the town, however, are less thrilled by his presence. Franco-German tensions have never been higher, and Adrien is not welcome by anybody, least of all Anna’s grieving in-laws, Hans and Magda (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber). “Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer,” Hans proclaims early in the film.
Adrien is there to learn about the friend the war claimed, and to the family, he becomes a reminder of whom they lost, a ghost of the man who never returned from the trenches. But even when Hans and Magda have warmed to him, Adrien still gets steely glares from the German men whenever he goes out on the town. Perhaps it’d help if it didn’t seem like he were trying to woo the bereaved Anna.
And when Adrien suddenly returns to Paris, a welcome narrative shake-up that comes halfway through the film, Anna of course follows — intent to learn about Adrien as Adrien tried to learn about Frantz. But in this new city, the prejudice is still abundant. Anna gets the same looks Adrien did, especially from Adrien’s family.
François Ozon’s period piece, a French and German co-production, tackles this xenophobia and nationalistic pride in a way that we might find familiar — not just those of us at home in America, but also abroad, where the waves of President Trump and Brexit are reaching far and wide. They have even reached Ozon’s home country of France, where National Front leader Marine Le Pen is calling for France to regain its identity by shunning immigrants and stripping religious groups of their identities.
So one would expect Ozon’s film to reflect these global prejudices and have something to say about our times, but the film instead sits proudly 100 years in the past. It’s not a reflection. It’s a movie trapped in the 1910s.
This lack of awareness wouldn’t be a problem if Frantz didn’t feel like a film made for another generation entirely. Ozon’s work typically showcases Hitchcockian plotting and a very French fixation on sex and carnality, but he opts for the old-fashioned here. Seeing characters slinking down wet cobblestone alleyways recalls the steamy noir of Orson Welles’ The Third Man or of detective classics like The Maltese Falcon, but there’s no mystery or intrigue here. God, I would have loved to see Anna or Adrien pull a Colt Detective Special on an intrusive German, or even for a brawl to break out in a bar. But this isn’t that kind of movie.
For all of its Haneke-esque camerawork, excellent production design and magnetic performances, the film suffers from a visual style too stuffy and lifeless to be entertaining and a story that is, unfortunately, horribly boring.
The simple fact is that few people can relate to the Franco-German prejudices of postwar Europe, and this lack of resonance undermines the film at every turn. It’s when the film focuses more on its twisting plot and the relationship of Anna and Adrien that Frantz actually begins to get interesting, but the movie’s first hour is a chore to get through.
There are a few truly excellent scenes — Hans’ speech to his German drinking buddies in a bar and much of Anna’s trip to France are particular standouts, but the rest of the film is so stuffy and torpid that it’s hard to appreciate those sequences Ozon gets right.
Xenophobic themes aside, Ozon manages to effectively explore Anna’s depression and the regret felt by Adrien and Hans. Adrien’s secrets and the guilt he takes from them weigh heavily on the second half of the film, and Frantz is all the better for the time Ozon spends on these ideas. And yet, when the proverbial curtain falls, there still isn’t any sense of resolution. Anna and Adrien both learned something, yes — but I can’t imagine what Ozon wants his audiences to take away from Frantz.
Unless you’re a particular fan of French art history or cinema, for all of its shortcomings, Frantz is clearly well-versed in those areas and Ozon’s latest will leave you unenthused and unaffected.