by Ken Bakely
It’s hard to connect with a movie that feels like a mirror drowned in Windex, stacked for your viewing pleasure, and stripped of any formal spontaneity. François Ozon’s Frantz is so concerned with its own aesthetic pristineness that it forgoes the emotional beats that have made its director’s best movies better. This film is a reflection, postulated to throw light back at you, and even take another mirror and reflect itself back at it. But we need windows to gaze into a world that we could not otherwise imagine. You can’t appreciate the sharp, stylistic decisions made if they’re not backing up the story that they were created for.
Consider the fact that Frantz is a film of precise transitions – between black-and-white and color, the speaking of French and the speaking of German, and the depiction of what happened and what’s invented. They’re all nice devices, used to tell the story of Anna (Paula Beer), a young woman in 1919 Germany, whose fiancé, Frantz, was killed during the war. Living with her would-be in-laws (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber), the three are surprised by the arrival of Adrien (Pierre Niney), in their small town. He’s a Frenchman who lays flowers at Frantz’s grave one day. And while he says that he was a friend, and shares nice stories about the two before the day of the fateful battle, there’s a dark secret brewing underneath, and one whose reverberations will affect Anna in particularly hard ways.
Upon closer examination of the plot, and the unorthodox manner through which it is told, we realize the eventual thinness of the material. After the first half of the film, in which Adrien’s lies are revealed, Frantz undergoes a bizarre, self-aggrandizing act of revision. There’s a concentrated effort to replicate as many early observations on nationalism and reconciliation as possible. German patriotic songs sung in pubs become French patriotic songs sung in cafés. The introduction of one family is remade with the introduction of another. A search for one person is replicated by the search for somebody else.
It’s all a long way to go in the way of backing up a speech made by Stötzner’s character, made to a group of xenophobic friends in the first act, that a hatred of the French, even if they killed your child, is absurd because your fellow Germans sent them to the front lines to begin with. But it feels like Ozon never has any other thematic tricks up his sleeve than this heavy-handed rejection of jingoistic hypocrisy. Regardless of how gorgeous the sharp, angular cinematography is, or how good the lead performances are (Beer and Niney, especially, are excellent at selling even the most circular of events), there’s nothing protecting Frantz from the dreary sameness of its script.
In this current political climate, Ozon is right in thinking that we need more lessons in basic empathy, but this isn’t even the main focus of the film. Frantz becomes obsessed with cutting-and-pasting emotional beats and creating an unearned sense of parallelism-based gravitas. Anna’s journey of realization after learning Adrien’s secret, and her subsequent discovery of how it easy it is to blunt your own truths in favor of comforting lies, is interesting on paper. Yet it’s presented in such a repetitive way that there’s no punch, and all we’re left with is obvious twists and unconvincing rug pulls. It’s a far cry from some of the director’s other movies – such as Swimming Pool and In the House – which deliciously obscure what is real and what is not. Here, maybe from a desire to create a more reverential world than those of the two more populist titles I mentioned, staidness becomes an overbearing force, and leaves little to appreciate under a glassy surface.