by George Wolf
No matter how fierce the differences, war can quickly remind grieving families how much they have in common. It is hardly a new sentiment, but one explored with fresh intimacy by writer/director Francois Ozon in the starkly compelling Frantz.
It is just after the close of World War I in a German town still full of prideful contempt for the victorious French. Fraulein Anna (Paula Beer) grieves for Frantz, the fiancee she lost in battle, living with his parents as the three cling desperately to Frantz’s memory.
Enter Adrien (Pierre Niney), a stranger known in town as “the Frenchman.” He visits Frantz’s grave to leave flowers and tears, naturally drawing Anna’s curiosity. Despite initial anger from Anna’s would be father-in-law, Adrien charms the family through stories of his friendship with Frantz, drawing closer to Anna while keeping crucial secrets from her.
Ozon, working with a more traditional narrative structure than in his Swimming Pool or 8 Women, isn’t shy with the metaphors, but has enough storytelling instinct to never overplay the hand. Through mirror images, shifting locales, even something as obvious as the film’s title, Ozon reinforces the emotional parallels while leaning on his stellar lead actors to fully exploit the subtle detours in where you think the film is headed.
Beer makes Anna a wounded soul in limbo, her piercing, curious eyes almost too daring for Adrien to confront. Niney provides the skittish affectations for Adrien’s tentative nature as a man both committed to and wary of his mission.
The film may tease with the promise of a climax more powerful than the one ultimately delivered, but Ozon achieves an artful level of downsizing with his latest. Frantz has a grace and maturity in it’s arc, understated but emotionally satisfying.