Friday, April 7, 2017


Director François Ozon on the set of Frantz

FRANTZ                    A-                   
France  Germany  (113 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  François Ozon             Official site [UK]

The long sobs
of autumn's
wound my heart
with a monotonous

and pallid, when
the clock strikes,
I remember
the days long past
and I weep.

And I set off
in the rough wind
that carries me
hither and thither
like a dead

Autumn Song, by Paul-Marie Verlaine from Poèmes Saturniens, 1866, Paul Verlaine, Song of Autumn

Viewers are usually in for an unexpected treat with Ozon films, as he’s a mischievous, openly gay filmmaker known for his eclectic styles, with a flair for misdirection and exaggerated melodramas, playful sexual comedies, identity issues, and an outright contempt for bourgeois families, which is why it comes as a complete surprise to find a film uniquely different from anything seen by Ozon before, where the opening half is utterly brilliant, perhaps the best of anything seen throughout this director’s career, showing a decisively more disciplined cinematic technique that couldn’t be more eloquently restrained and understated, completely measured and precise, like a companion piece to Michael Haneke’s richly austere THE WHITE RIBBON (2009), as both are historical films revealing buried secrets that are shot in black and white.  Having never shot a film before in black and white, having more in common with the garish colors of Douglas Sirk, the film is actually Ozon’s own adaptation written in collaboration with Philippe Piazzo of an earlier French play by Maurice Rostand, gay son of Edmund Rostand, the author of Cyrano de Bergerac, whose 1920’s play was used in an earlier Ernst Lubitsch film BROKEN LULLABY (1932), one of his lesser known efforts, told from the point of view of a French soldier visiting Germany shortly after the war, where there is an element of suspense, as no one knows why this man is in Germany.  Ozon begins his film the same way, but adds a unique twist to the second half.  Set in the small town of Quedlinburg, Germany in 1919, not long after the end of the First World War, the film opens on narrow cobblestone streets leading to a cemetery, where a young woman, Anna (Paula Beer), tends to a grave, but is startled to discover someone else has already laid fresh flowers.  Thus begins a mystery about why a young French man (who is fluent in German), Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), is visiting Germany so soon after the war, where his presence in town is immediately detected, arousing hostile emotions, becoming a subject of derision and contempt by an angered nation still smarting from defeat, where anti-French sentiment is commonplace, though most of the snickering comments are made behind his back, yet it’s hard not to notice a swell of nationalist fervor in this film, mirroring the posture of an anti-immigrant, post-Brexit and post-Trump world. 

Anna visits the grave every day, the burial site of her fiancée Frantz who died on the battlefield, still living in the home of his parents, as if she were their daughter, where Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner), a stern, white-bearded doctor, lives with his wife, Magda (Marie Gruber), both still mourning the loss of their son.  When Adrien initially visits the home to pay his respects, the doctor rudely sends him away, refusing to even speak to a French soldier, calling them all murderers of his son.  But Anna meets Adrien at the cemetery, offering him an invitation, intrigued that he knew Frantz, urging him to share what he knows with his parents.  This time, the doctor agrees to hear him out, somewhat skeptical at first, but the visitor seems genuinely affected by Frantz’s death, just as they are, becoming more curious about how they came to know one another, as he is the only living connection to their son.  Acknowledging they met at university in Paris before the war, they both shared common interests, including an appreciation for poetry and music, especially the violin, with Adrien giving Frantz lessons, as he is a professional violinist in a Parisian orchestra, but both also enjoyed visiting the Louvre, expressing a similar passion for French paintings, including a shared love for one painting in particular by Édouard Manet.  Frantz’s favorite poet was Verlaine, while French was the secret language used in an exchange of romantic letters with Anna.  By discussing art and shared cultural interests, both parents grow more accepting of this young gentleman, identifying with the personalized detail, recognizing in him their own son, finding mirror images of one another, literally transforming tormented memories of grief into happier remembrances, curiously astounded that a French soldier, a complete stranger, could offer such healing properties to the profound tragedy of losing their only child.  Eventually they look forward to every visit, inviting him to play Frantz’s violin, which may as well be offering their son’s heart, with Adrien playing a gorgeously sublime piece, an elegiac tribute that recalls the haunting beauty of Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2014 Top Ten List #2 Ida.  Having this man around, their tears turn to utter joy, sharing with him their son’s most prized possessions, where perhaps the biggest surprise is the degree of artistic restraint shown by Ozon, where one wonders if this muted expression is a newly discovered maturity, with the film unfolding through the refined eyes of Anna, viewed almost entirely as a modern woman, whose inner turmoil is at the heart of the picture, increasingly strong and magnetic, with Beer carrying the entire film on her shoulders, reminiscent of Alida Valli in Carol Reed’s THE THIRD MAN (1949), another film about secrets and lies in a toxic atmosphere of war. 

One cannot minimize the brilliance of Ozon’s superb direction, as it is an insightful meditation on the grief and loss of what Europe was experiencing at the time, beautifully rendered by the stunning look of the film, given painterly detail by cinematographer Pascal Marti, a superb musical score composed by Philippe Rombi, with subtle, achingly reserved performances that couldn’t be more sophisticated and dramatically compelling, where the chilling dramatic realism feels spawned by personal experiences, as if guided by the Strindberg school of acting, where the understated manner is exquisite, showing taste and refined manner, where the accumulation of emotion builds effortlessly, establishing credibility and grace.  Viewers will all be questioning Adrien’s motives, as his recollections of Frantz have a distinct homoerotic quality to them, where there’s more electrically charged chemistry with Frantz than there ever is with Anna, resembling the close friendship of Oskar Werner and Henri Serre in Truffaut’s JULES AND JIM (1962), as it appears to resemble the heartbreaking final sequence of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), returning to the family of a deceased lover, where we all expect a revelatory gay moment, which would fit right into Ozon’s wheelhouse, but it doesn’t go that way, choosing misdirection of a most pleasant variety, using a series of flashback sequences where the two relive recalled memories, where the past suddenly transforms into color, though dulled and washed out, like photographic images of antiquity, showing a surprising degree of restraint and good taste, where the film is a symphonic expression of whirling emotions.  The tenderly affectionate Magda claims Adrien reminds her of Frantz, “shy, but stormy,” while the introverted Anna heads straight into the eye of the storm, accompanying him on piano when he plays the violin (a successful merging of the two nations), quite taken by Adrien’s charms and good looks, along with his melancholy nature, agreeing to accompany him to a local ball, where despite an underlying tone of resentment for a Frenchman in their midst, there is plenty of music and dancing, and overflowing mugs of beer, creating a dizzying celebratory spectacle.  Again, mirroring this image, Frantz’s stone-faced father defines the lingering postwar tensions between France and Germany, initially dubious of Rivoire, and of the French in general, yet he clears the deck of longstanding resentments, rejoining his social position by meeting his peers in a Gasthaus, where he’s not exactly welcomed with open arms, befriending a Frenchman, yet he embraces a worldview not yet accepted by his drinking comrades, insisting they are ultimately responsible, as it was the fathers of both the French and German nations that sent their sons off to war, supplying the guns and ammunition to do the job, ultimately leading them to their slaughter.  For this to be followed shortly afterwards by the singing of Die Wacht am Rhein, a specifically anti-French patriotic anthem, suggests the message has fallen on deaf ears.  The tragedy of this realization matches the equally inconsolable remorse expressed by Adrien, who carries with him an unspeakable pain that he reveals only to Anna before returning back to France.  The silence that accompanies these revelatory moments is deafening.  

While the first half takes place in Germany, with Ozon extremely successful in evoking both period ambience and German flavor, Ozon adds a final segment with Anna (who is fluent in French) searching for Adrien in Paris after letters are returned undeliverable, where upon her arrival, just as Adrien received in Germany, she receives a heavy dose of French nationalism, none expressed any better than an impromptu singing of “La Marseillaise,” where underneath the surface patriotism are cruel suggestions of violence, a tribute to Bob Fosse’s CABARET (1972), where perhaps the most chilling moment is the singing of Tomorrow belongs to me - Cabaret - YouTube (3:06).  Unable to find any traces of him, the film turns into a detective story with a tragic-romantic twist, where she’s forced to search through all available clues, discovering Adrien lived in a dingy Parisian neighborhood filled with brothels, while also making depressing visits to army hospitals and cemeteries, finding herself face-to-face with insurmountable pain and anguish, searching through the listings of the dead, ultimately becoming wiser, but more world weary, having to distinguish whether Adrien is just a substitute for the ghostly memory of her dead fiancée or a genuine start of something new, where she can only hope her trip is not in vain.  During a visit to the Louvre she is shocked to discover that the Manet painting, the source of a joyous cultural exchange between friends, is actually entitled Le Suicidé (The Suicide) (, then click on image), a darkly dramatic and somber picture that starkly contrasts with the rest of his work, nearly undiscovered and barely mentioned within Manet’s oeuvre, as art historians have difficulty finding where it fits within the development of Manet’s art.  This distressing clue is reminiscent of the museum scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), where a portrait of the dead continues to haunt the living, as a work of art, one’s imagination, and real life strangely intersect, actually connecting death to desire, where in this film Anna miraculously encounters a family relative.  What she discovers when we meet the Rivoire family feels dumbfounding, as the previous subtlety and lyrical grace established in the German scenes go right out the window, as if the director’s reestablished footing back on French soil has rebooted his default tendencies, where an exaggerated melodrama kicks into overdrive with mixed results, especially the stunning effects of unforeseen circumstances, the immensity of the French manor, the aristocratic heritage, revealing an overcontrolling mother (Cyrielle Clair) who has a tendency to nose into everyone’s business (perhaps resembling Ozon’s own mother), thinking she still pulls the strings and imperiously knows all, but hasn’t a clue, as the aristocracy she’s accustomed to is coming to an end.  Offering a portrait of a matriarchal head of a scandalously emptyheaded bourgeois French family that hasn’t an ounce of understanding about their future or about their son’s true feelings, as Adrien is genuinely tortured by Frantz’s death, blaming himself, still traumatized by the war and its senseless deaths, becoming an ardent pacifist, yet the aristocracy thinks only of itself in its shortsighted views, exactly the opposite of what Anna and Adrien are striving to become, eying the future, literally having to transform their lives, trying to process the true meaning of love and loss, where both remain scarred by unimaginable grief and despair.  Despite the tonal missteps near the end that temporarily veer out of balance from what is otherwise such a poetic and tastefully subdued film, with near perfect production design by Michel Barthélémy and art direction by Susanne Abel, this remains one of the director’s most quietly moving and impassioned efforts. 

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