In 1919, a German miss and a French gent gingerly approach each other across the no-man's-land between their two countries. For Francois Ozon, director and co-writer of Frantz, the romance is less tentative. The French filmmaker's melodrama is a love letter to German-born director Ernst Lubitsch, as well as to painter Caspar David Friedrich.
Frantz is adapted from Broken Lullaby, made by Lubitsch (from a French play) in Hollywood in 1932. While thematically rich, Ozon's update is less compelling narratively. His decision to (mostly) emulate the look and feel of '30s black-and-white cinema threatens to turn a heartfelt parable into a novelty act.
After her fiance's death in World War I, Anna (Paula Beer) continues to live with heartbroken Hans (Ernst Stötzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber), who were to have become her in-laws. Frantz was their only child, and Anna is their last connection to him. The family never even received his body; the grave Anna visits regularly is empty.
It is at the grave site, of course, that Anna meets Adrien (Pierre Niney). The spindly, tortured veteran has just arrived from France, and begins leaving roses at Frantz's headstone. He soon encounters Anna, and tells her that he and Frantz, both classical musicians, were friends in Paris before the war.
Initially, Adrien is unwelcome in the town, and at the home of Frantz's parents. "Every Frenchman is my son's murderer," Hans announces.
Anna and Adrien become friends on a walk in the country during which the scenery bursts into color, mimicking Friedrich's landscapes. This strategy loses some of its potency later, when Ozon begins switching to color for a variety of purposes, including flashbacks both enchanted and grim. But the director is tweaking the notion of cinematic reality by using color for sequences that may not have actually occurred.
Anna brings Adrien to Hans and Magda's house, where he plays Frantz's violin. Before long, the Frenchman is a surrogate son. Magda seems happy that Adrien might marry Anna, and replace her boy in Anna's life.
Anyone familiar with the original film, or the play that preceded it, has reason to suspect that Adrien hasn't told the truth about his relationship with Frantz. But Ozon doesn't have to follow the original, which raises many other possibilities. Is Adrien a con man? Is he delusional? Were Frantz and Adrien lovers? There's also a hint that Frantz might have embraced death, suggested by his devotion to Édouard Manet's "The Suicide," which the movie places at the Louvre.
The director doesn't tinker much with the story's first half, but adds a second part of his (and co-writer Philippe Piazzo's) own invention. Anna's symbolic liberation from small-town almost-widowhood begins when she buys a dress, imported from Paris, to attend a dance with Adrien. Later, she follows him to France, where the possibility of an independent life awaits.
A young woman's emergence is a recurrent Ozon theme, and Beers embodies the transformation luminously, if not so flashily as some of the director's Gallic leading ladies. While Adrien's bold decision to visit a hostile Germany sets the events in motion, Anna's choices guide the latter half of the tale.
One of those choices is to keep what she learns about Frantz's fate to herself. A priest in the confessional helps guide her to that course, counseling her that dishonesty to spare people pain can be "pure." With its bows to Lubitsch, Friedrich, and Mahler, Frantz is a testament to the consoling power of art. But it's also a tribute to the beauty of lies.