20th Jul2017

‘Frantz’ Blu-ray Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber, Anton von Lucke | Written by François Ozon, Philippe Piazzo | Directed by François Ozon

frantz-blu

A remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film Broken Lullaby, itself based on a stage play, Frantz is the latest character-based drama from prolific French director François Ozon. Deeply melancholy and very moving, it’s a proper old school tearjerker, and more accessible than its austere monochrome aesthetic might imply.

1919. Widowed Anna (Paula Beer) lives in Quedlinberg with the Hoffmeisters, the parents of her late husband, Frantz, who was killed in battle the previous year. One day Anna visits Frantz’s grave and finds fresh flowers. The flowers were laid by a visiting Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney). He says he knew Frantz.

The Hoffmeisters tentatively welcome Adrien into their home. Mrs Hoffmeister (Marie Gruber) and Anna are keen to establish a posthumous emotional connection with Frantz via Adrien. The colder Mr Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) is less accommodating – “Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer” – but gradually he warms to Adrien, ignoring the locals’ distrust of the foreigner. Mr Hoffmeister is a shock of white, as if literally clad in the ghost of his son.

Frantz is mostly shot in black and white, but occasionally the film fades into colour, as if the presence of Adrien is bringing Anna and her parents-in-law out of their colourless grief and back to life. But then there are revelations. Anna is plunged into a terrible dilemma, and with bold elegance the narrative spins. The second half of the movie is virtually a mirror image of the first.

What begins as a family drama turns into an epic mystery, and the narrative expands. The film capitalises on the period setting, which is long before our hyper-connected world. Letters and log books and face-to-face reunions: we get the sense of a vast world that shrinks individuals to tiny specks, diminishing their significance in the great sweep of nationalism carving the world after the Great War.

Just as Todd Haynes was giving us the ultimate homage to Douglas Sirk when he made Far from Heaven, Ozon has made movie of which the German director Max Ophüls would have been proud. Ophüls was known for his profound humanism, as well as his consummate technical skill. Many of the tracking shots in Frantz, charting love-torn characters through cobbled midnight streets, could be straight out of Letter From An Unknown Woman.

Like Ophüls, Ozon is bringing A-grade formalist filmmaking to what is, at bottom, a Hollywood weepie. It is laser-guided at the heart from the very beginning, and it works because we’re in the hands of an expert storyteller. At every fanciful plot development, Ozon succeeds in putting us firmly in the shoes of the characters. So, we feel the pain of Anna, despite knowing nothing of Frantz; and later we feel the isolation of Adrien, as the tables are turned and we share in the experience of the outsider.

One of the key themes is guilt – the most corrosive of emotions – which comes in many forms. For the patriots of Quedlinberg the guilt lies firmly with the French. For Mr Hoffmeister, the guilt belongs to the fathers, for it was they who sent their sons to war. And then there’s Adrien, whose guilt is unique; not something that can be shared. For Anna, her guilt is on the way – but perhaps it is because she has seen what guilt does to others that she is, ultimately, able to deliver a final act of grace.

Ozon’s framing is exquisite. One of the repeated lines in the film is “Life goes on,” and this is visualised in the way the director fills his backgrounds with everyday life and tiny stories. Men at work, children playing, and families reunited. Ozon’s depth of field is complemented by Pascal Marti’s Cesar-winning cinematography, which makes extensive use of complex tracking shots without it feeling over-busy.

All of the main performances are excellent, but special attention should go to Paula Beer. Though not quite a newcomer, this must surely be the breakout performance for the 22-year-old actor. Her role is the toughest in the movie because her character necessarily underplays so much of her grief, and so much of her arc is defined by ambivalence. Anna is the beating heart of the movie, and few actors could have carried us along with such subtlety and confidence.

Richly complex and lyrical, and beautifully open-hearted, Frantz is a poem in film form, and it’s for everyone.

Extras include deleted scenes, a poster reel, lighting and costume trials, and the trailer. All are overlaid with Philippe Rombi’s absolutely gorgeous yet tragic theme music – even the awards ceremony footage, which sounds incongruous over scenes of the cast and crew joking around for the cameras at the Venice Film Festival.

Frantz is out on Blu-ray now from Curzon Artificial Eye.

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