For fully half its running time, writer-director François Ozon’s World War I-era film “Frantz” goes in a predictable direction. Based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 anti-war film “Broken Lullaby,” itself an adaptation of a Maurice Rostand stage play, “Frantz” starts out as a simple story of a man trying to make up for something he can’t forgive himself for doing.
But then, just when you expect Ozon to head into familiar territory, he swerves. Not hugely, and not in any fantastical way. He simply does so in a manner that, while it might have surprised audiences of Lubitsch’s era, feels perfectly attuned to 21st-century sensibilities.
The Frantz of the film’s title is a young German soldier who, when the film begins, is revealed to have been killed at the front. In fact, Frantz exists mostly as a McGuffin, seen only in flashbacks, his ghostly presence haunting the other characters. That includes his fiancée, Anna, as well as Frantz’s parents, with whom she lives. All plod through their days, burdened by loss.
Then one afternoon, while heading to Frantz’s grave – a symbolic site because Frantz’s actual body was buried where he fell – Anna, well played by the German actress Paula Beer, spots a stranger laying flowers on the dead man’s headstone. When asked for an explanation, the man – who turns out to be French – explains that he had been Frantz’s friend. That they had shared experiences in Paris before the war.
And so, slowly, the man – who introduces himself as Adrien Rivoire (played by Pierre Niney) – becomes a comfort both to Anna and to Frantz’s parents. Not at first because, one, he is French and resentment toward the enemy is still strong in Germany and, two, because their grief is just too raw. But he wins them over, finally, with tales of his and Frantz’s visiting museums and dancing in Paris nightclubs.
There is, of course, something a little too convenient about Pierre’s stories, and that’s where Ozon changes course. To be more specific would give too much away, but I will say that circumstances ultimately convince Anna that she must go in search of answers to questions she doesn’t even know how to ask.
Anyone who has seen other Ozon films, particularly “Under the Sand” or “Swimming Pool,” knows that he likes mysteries. And that’s how “Frantz” plays out, with our wondering where the story will go next. And Ozon plays with our expectations both thematically and visually, filming most scenes in a soft-focus black and white, while inserting various flashbacks, memories and what might even be fantasies in color.
The acting is good across the board, with Ernst Stötzner a gruff presence as Frantz’s father, Marie Gruber a far more gracious but no less heartbroken mother. Niney has sharp facial feature that give him a naturally screen-classic air, as if he were John Gilbert reincarnated.
It is Beer, though, on whom Ozon most dotes. Her final scene, which is revealed in full color, may be wishful thinking. But she plays it perfectly, a woman courting independence, coming finally into her own.