Francois Ozon’s previous films have often exhibited an affinity for Hollywood melodramas from the thirties and forties, but with “Frantz” he offers an actual remake, though a loose one—of Ernst Lubitsch’s “Broken Lullaby” from 1932. Lubitsch’s interwar version had the virtue of timeliness, as well as the director’s characteristic elegance. But while Ozon’s take on the story lacks the original’s topicality, it’s equally stylish, and by being detached from the historical context it actually becomes more universal.
The film is a parable of the loss inevitably brought by war. The title character (played by Anton von Lucke) is seen only in flashback: he’s a young German soldier killed on the Western front during the waning days of World War I in 1918. His parents, Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stoetzner) and his wife Magda (Marie Gruber), are still in deep grief, as is his fiancée Anna (Paula Beer), who is living with them. One day while visiting the dead man’s grave at the cemetery (which, we will learn, is actually empty, since Frantz was buried in a mass grave in France), Anna sees a strange man—thin and mustached—leaving flowers there. It will soon be revealed that he is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman who, under prodding, reveals that he developed a friendship with Frantz during the German youth’s studies in Paris before the war.
Despite anti-French hostility in the town, where many families lost sons in the war, Anna and the Hoffmeisters develop a friendship with Adrien that particularly irks Kreutz (Johann von Bulow), who was wounded in combat and now seeks Anna’s hand himself. The relationship between her and Rivoire takes on a romantic aspect which is suddenly threatened when he reveals the true nature of his relationship with Frantz.
In Lubitsch’s original, that represents the culmination of the film, but in Ozon’s refashioning a new chapter is added, with Adrien suddenly returning to France and Anna, after a conversation with a priest (reflecting an episode that occurred much earlier in the 1932 version), goes off to Paris to see him again. She eventually finds him, hopeful that the meeting will lead to something deeper, but his mother (Cyrielle Clair), though welcoming to a certain extent, is concerned that it might—for reasons that will not be revealed here.
“Frantz” repeats many of the themes of “Broken Lullaby”—the horror of war, the reality of grief, the necessity of forgiveness—as well as the notion that sometimes well-meaning deception is preferable to harsh, harmful truth. But Ozon adds characteristic layers of ambiguity to his script, particularly in the film’s second half, where he effectively transforms the original’s fairly simple resolution into something more complex and elusive. The final scene, in fact, can’t help but recall Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” as well as that picture’s enigmatic last shot, which forced viewers to contemplate what might happen next. (There are also other moments in the French scenes—such as Anna’s introduction to the Paris hotel where Frantz had stayed—that suggest other intriguingly oblique narrative threads.)
Ozon’s consummate sense of style, evident in his previous work, is equally on display here. The attention to period detail in Michel Barthelemy’s production design and Pascaline Chavanne’s costumes is extraordinary, as are the sheer beauty of Pascal Marti’s widescreen cinematography, which shifts from black-and-white to color to reflect changes in emotional states, the stateliness of Laure Gardette’s editing, and the resonance of Philippe Rombi’s delicately Herrmannesque score. (Note too the use of an excerpt from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” another work about life-saving stories, at a crucial moment.)
The performances too are all fully in tune with the directorial vision. Beer brings pathos to Anna while also evincing her strength, and Niney—quite appropriately not a leading-man type physically (the ethereal von Lucke better fills that bill)—captures Adrien’s complicated feelings with welcome subtlety. Stoetzner and Gruber expertly capture the differing qualities of Hans and Magda, the former radiating an initially stern demeanor that morphs into an almost desperate neediness for closure, and the latter exuding a warmth and generosity representing both concern for her husband as well as love for her deceased son. The rest of the supporting cast have less opportunity to shine, but Clair and Alice de Lenquesaing, as a childhood friend of Adrien’s, enjoy some strong moments.
Again Ozon has managed to craft a film whose ostensibly placid surface opens to reveal powerful undercurrents of pain, hopefulness and moral uncertainty.