French film ‘Frantz’ is fantastic

Pierre Niney and Paula Beer in “Frantz”
Pierre Niney and Paula Beer in “Frantz”

French filmmaker François Ozon’s “Frantz,” a carefully calibrated meditation on loss and reconciliation, is built around a pivotal lie. The fact that the new drama is a remake, of sorts, of Ernst Lubitsch’s “Broken Lullaby” will tell anyone familiar with that 1932 film what that deception entails, but it is best, if possible, to let the new film deliver its surprises to you unawares.

Although structured differently from Lubitsch’s original — itself based on a 1930 Maurice Rostand play (don’t look it up; the title gives away the surprise) — “Frantz” contains revelations unrelated to the manner in which it protects, and then peels away, its central mystery.

Ultimately, it addresses the question: Why go on living when life itself betrays us?

Set immediately after World War I, in the German town of Quedlinburg, the movie opens just as a young woman (Paula Beer) is discovering that a visiting Frenchman (the Adrien Brody-esque Pierre Niney) has been leaving flowers on the grave of her fiance, whose name lends the film its title, and who was killed in the war.

The friendship that grows between the woman, Anna, and the dashing stranger, Adrien, who tells her that he was friends with Frantz before the war, when both were living in Paris, is a sweet one, offering comfort not just to Anna, but also to her grieving parents (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber), once they are able to welcome a representative of the enemy into their home.

Ozon, who wrote the screenplay (with Philippe Piazzo) in a way that mostly steers clear of the story’s inherent melodrama, builds up a delicious tension in his tale, by hinting that Adrien and Frantz may have been more than friends in Paris, and by subtly playing up the lingering animosity felt by Quedlinburg’s citizens toward a French visitor in 1919 Germany, when the country’s wounds — both literal and figurative ones — were still fresh.

As Anna and Adrien also seem to be becoming more than friends, Ozon’s film (beautifully shot by Pascal Marti in the somber black-and-white of mourning) becomes subtly saturated with color in their scenes together, as if to symbolize the warm flush of springtime, new life and love.

But the story’s twist, once it arrives with the seeming impossibility of their being together, throws cold water on that. Anna and Adrien, who when we meet them have been drifting through life under the heavy shadow of bereavement, return to that state from their brief, colorful reverie.

Now these two characters are suffering from a double loss: of Frantz, and then each other. Beer and Niney are gifted performers, wringing all the nuance and contradiction out of their characters’ complex and irreconcilable situations, which have to do with both national and personal feelings of guilt and resentment.

But Ozon’s tale is hardly over. In fact, it’s really just getting started.

What follows — in many ways, what becomes the unlikeliest of love stories — brings with it profound insights about forgiveness, perseverance and responsibility, in the face of forces that are larger and more intractable than ourselves.

In French and German with English subtitles

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(out of five)

Director: Francois Ozon

Cast: Pierre Niney, Paula Beer

Rated: PG-13 (thematic elements, brief war violence)

Running time: 113 min.