'Frantz': Black-and-white WWI drama is more artful than moving

Frantz opens on a young woman in black, placing a rose on the grave of her fiancé, only to find fresh flowers already in place. 

Later, she sees a shadowy figure, a man, lingering near the memorial. 

Who is this mysterious fellow, and what does he want?

Sounds like something out of Poe, but in fact, it’s a loose remake of a 1932 Ernst Lubitsch movie (Broken Lullaby), exploring the nature of the personal and national grief that grew out of WWI. 

Anna (Paula Beer) is a German woman who was engaged to the title character (Anton von Lucke, seen in flashback) just before he went off to the front, urged by a gung-ho father (Ernst Stotzner) to protect the fatherland and fight the hated French. 

Now Frantz is dead, Germany is defeated and (so the townsfolk believe) unduly humiliated, which makes the mystery man an incendiary presence — all the locals know about him is that he French. 

Reasons for resentment are obvious enough — director Francois Ozon has Anna walking the streets of her village past disabled men, veterans, bearing the visible scars of having served (let’s call this tranche of visual information the Ozon layer). 

Anna befriends the visitor, Adrien (Pierre Niney), and asks about his vague connection to Frantz. He will say only that he was a friend of the dead man. She’s now living with Frantz’s parents, essentially as a daughter, and she invites this “friend” into their home. 

He tells stories of his prewar friendship with Frantz, who had studied in Paris, and a bond grows with the family. Still, we know he is withholding information, a secret he is obviously loath to share. 

I’ll give you one guess, and you will get it in one try. 

Why Anna and the others can’t seem to work it out is a problem. And she has others — the village is full of jealous men who love Anna as much as they despise the French. One has already proposed, but he is dull and older (what’s German for comb-over?), and Adrien is dashing and sensitive and flagrantly single. 

What Ozon does with these elements is less than gripping. I wasn’t expecting anything as luridly out-there as The Guest, which operated from a similar premise, but I’d hoped for more than the muted riddle Ozon sets forth. Finding the truth is one thing, we learn, and deciding what to do with it quite another. 

In fact, Frantz plays at times like a parody of an arthouse movie. Someone swoons during a violin recital, another tries suicide by wading languidly into a lake — studied images of despair that arrive without much feeling attached. 

And although Ozon is known for his stories of young women finding their way in the world, his Anna remains a blank, albeit a strikingly beautiful one. Ozon films his subjects in black-and-white, allowing small glimpses of color from time to time, before finally allowing the palette to fully bloom in Beer’s face, during the final, luminous shot. 


Frantz

Directed by François Ozon. With Pierre Niney, Anton von Lucke, Yohann von Bülow, Ernst Stötzner, Paula Beer, Marie Grüber. Distributed by Music Box Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 53 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for thematic elements including brief war violence).