There are basically two groups of war movies: The ones that have lots of buildings and people blowing up, and the ones that are about the stories in between things blowing up. Rarely do you come across a film that’s both (Schindler’s List and Downfall are masterful exceptions). François Ozon’s languid Frantz sits comfortably in the corner of the latter group, taking place after the Great War and during a period of tumultuous regrouping for the losing side, which were, of course, the Germans. It is basically a war movie with very little war.
Ozon narrows his focus to the Hoffmeisters – a good-spirited but fractured elderly couple whose son, Frantz (Anton von Lucke), has been killed in France – and Anna (Paula Beer), Frantz’s would-be future wife. Together they mourn their loss, blaming all of France for Germany’s dead. One day, a Frenchman called Adrien (Pierre Niney) wanders to their doorstep, claiming to be Frantz’s best pal, offering peace and good will. At first, the Hoffmeisters are doubtful, but they soon suspect that Adrien speaks the truth, and for a brief moment they wine and dine as if their son has returned.
Much of Frantz hinges on Adrien’s honesty. It’s clear he’s concealing hidden truths about his seemingly random appearance, but Niney is clever in turning Adrien’s questionable conscience into a performance of immense pathos. The first half of the film is about him. The second is about Anna. Both characters have to rise above the anger of their compatriots to see each other as they really are. Sounds heavy and impenetrable? Well, you don’t go to a French film for exploding robots.
Frantz is definitely a slow-burn, patiently allowing its characters the room to explore their emotions and calculate their actions. Anna is a strong, forgiving woman; Beer’s performance is one of delicate timing and restraint. Adrien, conversely, is more unhinged, freewheeling, impulsive. But this isn’t an Along Came Polly kind of matchup. There are no jokes about spicy food and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Anna and Adrien are introduced to each other by a tragedy – there is an air of the macabre that settles upon them. Indeed, Pascal Marti’s breathtaking black-and-white photography sometimes feels like a visual eulogy, and there are many scenes set in cemeteries. Frantz may be about two young people moving on with their lives, but its DNA is made up of death.
It’s a sure-footed, understatedly bold movie, despite turning a few expected corners (Frantz may not have been the angelic son/fiancé the Hoffmeisters thought they knew; Anna resorts to extremes too early; etc.). Even when it falters, it does so with grace, keeping the drama firmly centred on the people who matter. This isn’t a groundbreaking film about war, or even about human dynamics, but it’s thoughtful and charismatic, and many times, that’s enough.