Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Is there any romance like a French romance? The tragedy, the passion, the tears, the cool passivity, the game playing, the multiple partners, the devotion, all these contradictions and more make up one of the most rich sub-genres in the history of cinema. Despite the Cahier Du Cinema claim that French cinema prior to the 1960’s lacked solid genre foundations they were perhaps the first to display complete, unadulterated cinematic romanticism. Sure America had Chaplin, but the French had Renoir, Cocteau, Vigo, displaying the intense highs and deprived lows of love. Francois Ozon’s 2016 film Frantz joins this long tradition with both a particularly heartbreaking and conflicted tale.
The story concerns a young German widow named Anna (Paula Beer) who lost her husband Frantz during WWII. She resides with Frantz’ parents, the Hoffmeister’s, while avoiding the courtship of a prominent and outspoken man in their town. One day when Anna is going to visit Frantz’ grave she catches a young Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney) placing flowers at his tomb. She inquires about this man and discovers he and Frantz were friends before the war. Ozon wisely teases out the ambiguity of this relationship, allowing for vague sexual undertones to occur. Were these men lovers? Or is there spirited friendship really just as it seems, two men from different cultures bound by love of life, poetry and dance? Certainly it could not be that idyllic, and Ozon, ever the admirer of the game-changing twist, wisely misdirects our attention at every turn until dropping a crushing revelation halfway through the film.
At this point the movie becomes a very different thing than it had been before, the love story beneath the surface takes on a sudden urgency. The first half, which is by all accounts beautiful and sensuous, suddenly seems slow in the face of this ill-fated but well-intentioned romance. The films photography is mostly black and white (Ozon switches to color in a few key moments), accentuating the film’s classicism. Tonally it evokes Melville’s La Silence de la Mar crossed with the Before Sunrise-trilogy, it’s a love story that retains incredible humanism while having a strong moral core. If there is one flaw to the film is the beauty can be suffocating. Even the war flashback is filmed so tastefully, it feels like pillow stuffing, mere fluff, reciting the story would’ve been stronger. Ozon in this case would’ve done well to learn from The Cranes are Flying, love stories can have claws, fangs, and snares too, especially those during wartime, neither the war or romance should be dampened for the screen.
It almost feels Hollywood in how old it could be. Here is a film that should have been made alongside Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, any number of those great old romances, even the ones not starring Humphrey Bogart! This is revivalist cinema at it’s finest and least trendy. Ozon is using genre tropes that were relevant in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, no one else is making movies like this. This is a forbidden romance of the highest order, theirs is a love that at once seems perfect, purposeful, and completing but also distorted, pained, and reactive.
Francois Ozon has been making films since the late 1990’s, so it’s refreshing to see him this almost twenty years into his working life not striving for a career-altering masterwork but rather something kinder and more clear-eyed. This is a movie that a lesser filmmaker would have a really difficult time creating, but in his hands it looks effortless and breezy. The chemistry between the two leads has a magnetism, the space between them is a burden. Ozon works his trademark mastery of panning wide shots where the blocking borders on the theatrical mixed with intimate close ups, his actors faces framed as if in paintings. Ozon’s largest strength has become his ease of craft.