Review: Frantz

(François Ozon, France, Music Box Films, Opens March 15)

Frantz begins in 1919, as a German war widow decides to buy some flowers—not to host a party but to honor a fallen soldier. In fact, Anna is not quite a widow, because Frantz Hoffmeister, the man she mourns, was still her fiancé when he died on a French battlefield. His grave is also not quite a grave, because Frantz’s body was never recovered for proper burial. For the lover and parents he left behind, the cemetery plot is a palliative half-truth. Even this solace gets threatened, however, when Anna discovers a mysterious Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney), unknown and unwanted in this German hamlet of scarred veterans and grieving families, leaving his own bouquet at Frantz’s headstone, for reasons nobody can guess.

From this premise, François Ozon and his cowriters unspool a melodrama full of volatile events, yet cool in image and tone. They have adapted their scenario from a Lubitsch drama called Broken Lullaby (1932), but exhaust that template within the first hour, after which they embellish this tale about embellishment with new twists and revelations.

If, for all its soapy intricacies, Frantz remains a muted and disappointing experience, the blame lies with Ozon’s miscalculated direction. He hangs much of the film on the performance of Paula Beer, a young, proficient actress who does not yet transfix the camera in ways that fully exploit Frantz’s emotional or psychological potential, especially as Anna’s choices and motives grow ever more complex. Beer looks a bit like Renée Zellweger in some shots, and more like Bérénice Bejo or Ludivine Sagnier in others. These are not faces you’d expect to confuse, but the camera never gets a clear hold on Beer, who feels more like a vague presence than a prismatic shapeshifter.

The film as a whole has a similar problem­, feeling uncertain at the script level about which characters to emphasize or discard, what genre or tone to pursue, and how much flashback or fantasy to incorporate. Unfortunately, Ozon is no more sure-footed as a stylist than he is as a dramatist. His framing often seems listless, missing opportunities to sharpen the story or intensify characterization. Even the best images get scuppered by awkward ones, as when Ozon follows a dark, misty tracking shot of Anna and Adrien returning home from a late-night dance with some boilerplate medium close-ups that dissipate dramatic tension and muffle expressive detail. The silvery monochrome photography itself feels like an arbitrary choice, handsome in hue but not especially evocative of the period, and exacerbating the under-composed aspect of the shots.

Eventually, Frantz risks some surprise transitions into color—a ruddy palette in soft-edged light that looks almost hand-tinted, and thus feels more antique, oddly, than the black and white. These sporadic interludes risk further affectation in a film that already feels like an exercise. However, as the logic motivating these shifts becomes clear, Frantz starts adding up in more interesting ways. Appearing at first to distinguish past from present, the color sequences gradually reveal themselves as indicators of narrative misdirection, as various characters seek to fool or soothe the bereft, to ignite romance, to assuage themselves, or all of these.

No sooner does this pattern emerge than we find ourselves asking in turn whether the characters’ or the film’s deviations from truth are necessarily limited to the scenes in color. Even the dubious texture of the black-and-white images, which seem digitally achieved rather than authentically monochrome, feels newly salient to Frantz’s story, so riddled with lies that hide in plain view. If all this imposture has been strategized to suit the script’s themes, Ozon may have crafted a cleverer, more coherent piece than it initially appears to be.

Even if the director has his reasons, though, it’s dispiriting that Ozon gets so excited about fancy tricks, a recurrent bent that doomed the buoyant pastiche of 8 Women (2002) and the plot convolutions of Swimming Pool (2003) and In the House (2012) to quickly diminishing returns. For my money, Ozon has never made another feature half as bracing as Under the Sand (2000), which shares with Frantz an idea of how dire misfortune becomes an alibi for zealous self-deception. Granting the obvious advantage of having Charlotte Rampling as its centerpiece, Under the Sand articulates itself in the simplest, most character-attentive terms. By contrast, for all that the new film showcases Ozon’s versatility and sneaky ambition, it demonstrates too how visual and narrative fussiness often undermine his efforts. Frantz improves as it goes, or at least opens up more pathways of interpretation, signaling more method to its addledness—but it’s still not an experience that lingers much in the head, or tugs much at the heart.