There’s something about wartime romance movies. Usually in this country it’s the Second World War. After some searching i found the last most recent one, the insipid 2004 joint Suite Française. A film, as they always are about the love affair between a French woman and this dashing Nazi officer. At least Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS was able to be honest about the repressed sexual undertones and kinkiness the whole Nazi thing represented. It’s telling that British producers choose to set these in small picturesque French villages, hopefully the distance the channel waters provide us the distance to recontextualise the morally problematic imagery into Nicholas Sparks beauty. Everyone loves a sexy Nazi.
Frantz then is I suppose what happens when the material is given to European filmmakers. Firstly it’s set in the aftermath of the First World War, the murkier and sadder one, the usual roles are reversed too: a German woman, a French man. It’s an interesting series of adaptations too: A play by Maurice Rostand, a Frenchman, turned into Broken Lullaby, a film by German master of the early talkie Ernst Lubitsch then handed back to France again, director François Ozon for this latest version.
The film opens in a German village, Anna (Paula Beer) mourning the death of her fiancé Frantz Hoffmeister, a casualty of the recently ended war, notices someone else has left flowers at his grave. She learns they have been left there by Adrien (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman who knew him from the time they spent together studying music in Paris, come to mourn his lost friend. He has a wispy, elegantly cut moustache and speaks with a voice cut from the roof of his mouth. He is fluent in German, but the town does not warmly receive someone so recently considered an enemy.
Nor do they appreciate the family that takes him in, desperate for all the stories their lost son was never able to tell them about his time in the city. Everyone here is strangled in their grief, they all dutifully dress in black, Anna fending off the persistent advances of the men just returned from the front, the father unwilling to join the men’s club, unwilling to listen to the stories of the war that robbed him of his son. Adrien is so cut up you just gotta assume he’s keeping a secret that’ll torpedo the whole thing. Either his relationship with Frantz was something more than he’s letting on, or it’s something altogether darker. I’ll leave that there.
It’s wonderfully acted, Beer and Niney find the texture of their unfolding relationship and grasp to in, Ozon pushes the camera into their faces and allows the movements of their eyes to speak when the characters find themselves unable to. Sometimes when they’re alone colour rushes back into the black and white world they inhabit as the ghosts of their tortured past briefly depart them. The film presses on its characters as lightly as Anna’s fingers on the keys of her piano, the world seems light and airy and scenes come and go unhurried as their bodies ease the tensions of four years of wartime stress.
A late shift of events from Germany to Paris provides the film with impetus and urgency. We are now the enemy in a foreign land, and the city locale invites the production designers to fill the frame with the all the period detail one could wish for. The emergence of a mystery drives us forward, but at the expense of the relationships the rest of the film has spent so much time building up.
I guess this is a hard story to tell, and I don’t really have an explanation why it didn’t hit me the way it wanted to. I can acknowledge the craft of the thing, and indeed all the cogs mesh together perfectly. Maybe Ozon’s delicacy is too much for me in this case, nothing was there that left any significant impact. Maybe I was just disappointed at how everything turned out.
After the screening, down in front of me, an elderly couple was talking. They though the film was going to end in a suicide, I was pretty certain going through that it wouldn’t. The film was leading us to understand these characters, if it wasn’t able to effectively do that then there’s gotta be something here that ain’t working right.
Frantz is currently screening in UK cinemas