Filmmaker François Ozon presents a beautiful and somber rumination on war and loss in his latest film Frantz, masterfully crafted through stylistic elements that tell a story of absence, silence, and the beauty hidden in between. Ozon manipulates color, sound, imagery, and metaphor to create a simple yet tonal mood piece surrounding the emotionally stifling performances of his actors. The experience is tantamount to hearing poetry recited as Ozon presents a wholly unique perspective on the desolation of youth and humanity left in Europe after the end of WWI.
Frantz tells the story of Anna (Paula Beer), a young woman living in Germany in 1919 and grieving the death of her fiance Frantz after the closing of The Great War. She lives with Frantz’s equally heartbroken parents and within a world damaged by loss — surrounded by a citizenry eager to place blame on their combatants, particularly the French. When Adrien (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman, comes into town and is seen visiting Frantz’s grave, this sends the village into a frenzy, and when Anna and her parents-in-law learn of his past with their dearly departed, he is quickly transplanted into the family and begins to gradually heal their deep wounds. Adrien harbors his own painful wounds, though, and his own memories of Frantz introduce new issues of youth, war, brotherhood, loss, and forgiveness into Anna’s spiritual and emotional journey.
Ozon’s film is told as an artistic ghost story. He uses absences and omissions throughout to convey a sense of loss for the viewers themselves. Most of the film is presented in black and white, indicating an absence of color. Ozon uses black and white as a specific storytelling tool to reveal the darkness, greyness, and lifelessness befalling Anna’s mourning, as well as the entire country’s. When Ozon does introduce color, it acts as an indication of Frantz’s spirit or the hope felt before the war did its damage. Absences pop of frequently elsewhere. A sparsely heard score lends to a focus on ambient noises, like Anna’s pattering of footsteps on the cobblestones or the blustery wind. Aside from the ever-present memory of Frantz, ghosts from the war are also visible on Adrien’s body in the form of scars, and in both his and Anna’s quiet, calculating, and feeling demeanors. The silences, the color, the weather, and faint sounds of life all come together poetically, in a lament to a fallen people.
Frantz is so much more than the ghost of a lost soldier, fiance, and son. He is an extended metaphor for the ravages of war, the corruption of youth, the realities of death, and as a vessel for guilt, forgiveness, and redemption. Although he never appears on-screen in living form (aside from in various memories) Frantz is in nearly every scene, impacting the lives left behind, sometimes as a deterrent for progress and at other times, its impetus. Frantz takes many forms — as a physical and emotional barrier between Anna and Adrien, as the latent anger felt between the Germans and French, as a representation of death, and conversely, a representation of rebirth. He is there in the cloudy and somber tone as well as in the film’s rare moments of light. Ozon has expertly created an immensely impactful character solely built from feeling, memory, and the individual arcs of his other main characters.
Anna and Adrien’s arcs are tied to Frantz by a red string, and the magnetic force of his absence is palpable in Beer and Niney’s performances. Both actors flourish the complicated emotions of their respective characters’ particular mourning, resulting in a heart-rending effect of paralysis in their expressions of feeling. Every swallowed thought, every lingering question weighs heavily upon their lips and countenances, and is dropped into the air like a silent explosion. On top of their remarkably mature renderings of tragedy, pain, and grasp for life, Beer and Niney are equally impeccable in their interpretation of the period piece. With the aid of precise hair, makeup, and costuming, Anna and Adrien are picture perfect of the post-war era, affecting a sense that they have emerged from an image frozen in time.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
François Ozon has achieved something remarkable with Frantz, defying convention and time. The film captures the feeling of an era and a generation as if it has been unearthed in the present consciousness. Frantz lives in a cinematic world of intense feeling, and is characterized by starkly simple, but poetic stylistic elements that bring the feeling to life and bring the viewer into its recesses. Paula Beer and Pierre Niney delicately balance their characters’ insular emotional wreckage with the complex electric interactions between each other and their relationship triangle with Frantz. The film conjures emotion from the simple suggestion of tragedy and is undoubtedly one of the most elegant films we will see all year.