For the love of Frantz

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Wednesday March 22, 2017
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As Americans, we are now thoroughly conditioned to making war on peoples on the other side of the globe, whose deaths we neither count nor consider. We celebrate snipers in big-budget films, play video games in which everyone's out to kill us, celebrate gun culture, and wonder why so many of our teenagers suicide. We have ceased to be a coherent culture, since we ignore the money we spend and the money we make on armaments. What chance does Francois Ozon's pacifist film in French and German, with subtitles, have of finding an audience here? Frantz opens Friday at the Clay in San Francisco, Berkeley's Shattuck, and Camera in San Jose.

Frantz, the movie's title character, is dead when the film begins, and his death is the catastrophe that unhinges his small family circle. Frantz was a nice young German man drafted into the war to end all wars, WWI, and he was killed in its final year, 1918. He leaves behind a chubby mother, a white-haired patriarch, and a winsome fiance, in a sober but respectable household in a town called Quedlinking. The surprise in this stereotypical set-up is that he is also mourned by a Frenchman, who was himself a soldier. Adrien is played with large eyes, weak mouth, and imposing physiognomy by Pierre Niney.

The first shots are of leading lady Paula Beer walking along cobblestone streets in a hat and a handbag, buying a pot of flowers, and taking them to Frantz's grave. He turns out not to be in his grave, having been scooped into a mass grave on a battlefield of the Marne, but the family needs a point of focus, as does the film. The cemetery is beautiful, even in black-and-white, its plots widely spaced amidst shimmering spring grasses, under the whispering leaves of wise old trees who provide dancing shadows. His fake grave is where Anna first sees the French ex-soldier, who has come to lay flowers.

Director Francois Ozon on the set of Frantz. Photo: Jean-Claude Moireau-Foz/Courtesy of Music Box Films

The movie is slow to start, and throughout its 113-minute runtime lapses and relapses into a funereal pace, or do I mean melancholy. The theme of the film seems to me to be the profound European melancholy that Americans with their optimistic, can-do materialism have never understood. The beginning of the end of Europe was the beginning of the rise of the United States as the uncontested imperial force. Europe imploded with not one but two world wars, while Americans came to their rescue and made advantageous business deals. We got to play the good guys, an image most of us still actually believe in.

Pierre Niney and Paula Beer in Frantz. Photo: Jean-Claude Moireau-Foz/Courtesy of Music Box Films

Frantz is loosely based on a film by Ernst Lubitsch, the master of early Hollywood's sophisticated romantic comedies, he of the Lubitsch touch. His 1932 film Broken Lullaby was a departure for the German immigre, being sincere, sentimental, and even serious in its pacifist message. The movie's source was a three-act play by Maurice Rostand, a prolific man of letters and flamboyant homosexual in the Oscar Wilde mode. The play's title boldly states a crucial plot point that Ozon chooses to keep secret until a third of the way through his movie, which is maybe why it takes so long to get off the ground.

This elegy for European consciousness is shot in black-and-white, with sudden subjective swings into color, notably when the missing man everyone holds in their hearts appears onscreen. The ratio of monotone to color is exactly opposite that of The Wizard of Oz, since the characters are stuck in their grief, in a familiar familial landscape instantly rendered unheimlich , or alien, by the senseless slaughter of the next generation. Briefly, in flashback, in dream sequence, or fleeting moments of wellbeing, color permeates the screen. These mood swings make this costume drama very much of the moment.