Sadly, the First World War did not live up to its advertising as "the war to end all wars." Its consequences were devastating and prolonged, particularly within the European community where a generation of young men were lost, either dead or damaged, fighting their neighbors in the trenches.
French filmmaker Francois Ozon revisits that era in all its complexity in Frantz, a moody, mysterious, and utterly engrossing tone-poem on love, loss, and absolution.
The story is adapted from a 1932 stage play by Maurice Rostand, which Ernst Lubitsch made into the film, Broken Lullaby, the same year.
At that time, no one knew the world was on the brink of yet another Great War, which only proves how stubbornly the human species refuses to learn from its mistakes — a situation Ozon finds as disturbingly timely as ever today.
It's 1919, and Anna has moved in with Frantz's parents, doctor Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner), and homemaker Magda (Marie Gruber), to share their grief.
On one of Anna's daily visits to the cemetery, she finds a stranger, soft-spoken young Frenchman Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) leaving flowers on Frantz's grave.
Adrien tells them all he knew Frantz in Paris, where their Francophile son lived for a time before the war. Most of the townsfolk, Hans included, are suspicious of a Frenchman in their midst, but Magda warms up to Adrien; she calls him "shy and stormy" — like Frantz.
The rest of the plot is best left to be discovered; the movie keeps changing direction, but never quite ends up where you might think it's going.
Ozon shoots in expressionistic black-and-white, evoking both the between-the-wars period, and the element of mystery at the heart of his story.
(Special kudos are due to costume designer Pascaline Chavanne, especially for Anna's simple, elegant period gowns.)
Both visually and in storytelling terms, Frantz is an immersive experience, drawing us into the characters and their world. Ozon's images are as haunting and steeped in emotion as the story deserves.
The compelling Niney has the expressive look and demeanor of a silent movie actor, with his dark-rimmed eyes and pencil moustache. He doesn't exaggerate, but you can read everything he's feeling on his face.
His Adrien desperately wants to do the right thing — by Frantz and his family, and by Anna — if only he could figure out how.
This is a beautifully crafted movie, full of substance and feeling. Don't miss it!