Prolific French director François Ozon returns to UK cinemas this week with Frantz, a slick inter-war melodrama that promises more than it ultimately delivers. Paula Beer plays Anna, a young Fräulein grieving for her fiancé Frantz (Anton von Lucke).
Apparently an orphan, Anna lives with Frantz’s parents, the town physician Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber). Bothered by insistent suitor and slimy German nationalist Kreutz (Johann von Bülow), Anna’s only solace is her visits to the graveyard. Here she discovers that a Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney), has also been visiting Frantz’s grave. Adrien also visits the doctor but is given short shrift from the still-grieving father before he can reveal the nature of his relationship with his son.
With Anna’s intervention, Adrien returns and as he recounts his friendship with Frantz, he manages to bring comfort to the family and, in the process, a tentative romance begins between Anna and Adrien. This is played out against the growing hostility of the town folk, who can only see the old enemy. All is not as it seems and the deceit is revealed in confession. Adrien is not the friend of Frantz but is in fact his killer. Why this possibility should never have entered into the minds of the parents is not clear. After all, on his hostile first meeting with Dr. Hans, Adrien admits that, as a soldier, he is a murderer.
The credulity is as baffling as the original idea that Adrien should think it a good idea to ask forgiveness of the parents of the man he killed – unless, as is suggested by the homoerotic glances of the flashbacks, Adrien actually did have a sexual relationship with Frantz, which he has hidden under the confession of killing. Even this is a reading that begins to take us on a far too convoluted road. Deceits begin to multiply as Anna blocks the confession, telling Adrien she has already told them (she hasn’t) and weaving a tale for the Hoffmeisters to explain Adrien’s precipitous return to Paris. When Adrien’s correspondence stops, the old couple encourage Anna to travel to Paris alone and seek him out. Given the period, this seems highly unlikely. Perhaps this can be put down to the couple’s naivety, though highly unlikely given the notoriety Paris so richly deserved for all kinds of licentiousness.
This search allows the film to escape from the stifling atmosphere of parochial bigotry, but it also means abandoning the Hoffmeisters and their grief as well as Kreutz and his ilk. What we’re left with is a handsome prestige picture with a poised, occasionally glowing performances from the two young leads. The black and white photography adds little and has the unwanted effect of recalling Michael Haneke’s vastly superior The White Ribbon. The occasional shifts to colour are cliched when not random, though Philippe Rombi’s score is appropriately lush. Ozon’s Frantz is, sadly, an underwhelming tale of a European union that didn’t quite make it, its chocolate box sheen belying the emptiness at its heart.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty