In the opening moments of “Frantz,” the latest intricately layered mystery from the French writer-director Francois Ozon, a German woman named Anna (Paula Beer) visits the grave of her fiance, a soldier recently slain in the trenches of World War I. You can sense the war’s immense reach in a few fleeting details – a man who whistles in Anna’s direction is missing an arm – but also in the eerie quiet that has descended on the town’s cobbled streets and in the somber cast of the movie’s black-and-white images.
If you happen to have seen Ernst Lubitsch’s “Broken Lullaby,” the 1932 antiwar drama on which this new film is based, you might also sense something more: a curious and telling shift in perspective. Lubitsch’s film, adapted from a play by Maurice Rostand, was a rare message picture from a director celebrated for his exquisite comic touch, unfolded through the eyes of a French veteran making an unexpected visit to the grieving loved ones of a dead German soldier.
“Frantz” retains the earlier film’s central premise and pacifist themes. A Parisian musician named Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) has come to pay his respects to Dr. Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner) and his wife, Magda (Marie Gruber), and to share his memories of their fallen son, Frantz (played by Anton von Lucke in flashbacks). But this time, the story’s moral and dramatic fulcrum is Anna, whose loving, protective attitude toward the Hoffmeisters, whom she regards as her own parents, is matched by her intense curiosity about this stranger in their midst.
The presence of a Frenchman in Germany so soon after the Great War does not go unremarked upon by Dr. Hoffmeister, who receives Adrien coldly at first, or by the glowering locals – one of whom, Kreutz (Johann von Bulow), wants to marry Anna himself. Adrien, for his part, is sympathetic but not entirely above suspicion. His recollections of many happy hours spent with Frantz in Paris before the war, visiting museums and playing the violin together, bring the Hoffmeisters no small measure of solace. But his sad eyes and halting, fearful demeanor seem to tell a darker, more unsettling story.
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That story will not be revealed here, though Ozon, a master of misdirection and one of French cinema’s most prolific chroniclers of gay desire, delights in raising the sort of romantic possibilities that are easier for an audience to countenance now than they were in 1919. More than once, “Frantz” hints that it will reveal itself as a homoerotic reworking of “Broken Lullaby.” But Ozon has something simpler and no less intriguing up his sleeve.
One of the key questions Ozon is asking here is about the moral necessity of telling a falsehood, particularly when the need to shield those already in mourning from further pain becomes its own moral imperative. “Frantz” achieves its own version of this paradox. It is a cunningly crafted fiction, full of visual artifice and narrative sleight-of-hand, that by the end could hardly feel more sincere.
Cast: Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stotzner, Marie Gruber, Anton von Lucke
Director: Francois Ozon
Length: 113 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements including brief war violence)