As a camera object Pierre Niney is extraordinary, a china vase with an effete mildness. In Frantz, the star of Yves Saint Laurent plays a French veteran of the Great War who visits the family of the dead German soldier he’d befriended. What he meant to the unfortuante Frantz Hoffmeister and what happens when he interacts with his grieving fiancee (Paula Beer) is the premise of François Ozon’s uncharacteristically serious picture.
In the aftermath of 1919’s Treaty of Versailles, thanks to which the Allied powers saddled a humiliated Germany with billions in reparations, relations between the belligerents were poisonous. The families of the dead were reluctant to forgive. A violinist with a fey manner, Adrien (Nines) first charms then spooks Anna with anecdotes about his friendship with Frantz (Anton von Lucke, in flashbacks): how they talked about art in museums beneath the shadow of Edouard Manet’s Le Suicidé , for example. Quickly he wears down the Hoffmeisters resistance; his father, a doctor and burgher type who looks like one of the Mann brothers, evolves from “Every French man is my son’s murderer” to “Don’t be afraid to make us happy.” It’s possible that Hoffmeister like Anna can’t admit he’s smitten with Adrien. In its first half, Frantz performs an exquisite fan dance. Flashbacks show a friendship premised on deep affection that depended on its ephemerality for its intenseness. But Adrien controls the narrative; the co-lead died in a battlefield, after all, and no one can confirm his story (Pascal Marti’s creamy black and white photography evokes the memory of a golden past).
Imagining Ozon at the helm of a film almost devoid of the camp touches that have marked the French writer-director’s work since the late nineties is like imagining Roy Andersson directing a Hunger Games project. Nevertheless, this adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, itself based on Maurice Rostand’s play The Man I Killed, plumbs depths of feeling that Ozon’s career has heretofore avoided. He’s never made an essential film; he gestures towards Interesting Cinema as if the shows of fluency were enough. His diversions (Swimming Pool, Potiche, My New Girlfriend) are superior to his dramas (Under the Sand, A Time to Leave. Often bored by following through on the questions he raises, the prolific Ozon may assume he’ll answer them in a future project, released, inevitably, a few months later.
By focusing on Anna’s pain and growing attraction, Frantz eroticizes material whose political context was already fraught (Lubitsch released Broken Lullaby a mere fourteen years after Versailles). The film’s heart beats in the last third: a delicate, gently placed sequence in which Anna traces Adrien’s journey back to Paris. At a concert, finding the Manet painting, meeting amused and wary relatives, Anna has to figure out her feelings before suspicions catch up with her. The excellent Beer, giving one of the strongest performances in an Ozon film to date, makes this pain believable. The dead communing with the living (while Anna reads a letter aloud, Ozon double tracks the dead Frantz’s voice with Adrien’s); the homoerotic overtones in the relationships between soldiers, about which we know much thanks to the poetry of Wilfred Owen; the allegiances the living owe the dead — Frantz explores them with grace. And when Ozon switches from black and white to color in the final sequence the gesture feels earned.