Frantz, France & Germany, 2017, directed by François Ozon
Post-war romantic saga or clunky assertion of our common humanity? You can almost taste pre-twenties Europe in this well-styled film that could do with lopping off the last few twists in its plot. (And Anna’s hats are quite something.)
Frantz opens with a puzzling occurrence in a German town in the year after the First World War’s end. Anna, who is visiting the grave of her fallen-soldier fiancé, Frantz, gleans that an unknown Frenchman has been placing flowers on the grave too. He tries to visit the home of her former in-laws-to-be, where she is staying, and is kicked out by Frantz’s father for being French. There is some back-and-forth as Anna seeks him out, and eventually introductions are made. The visitor, Adrien, whom it turns out had some form of connection with Frantz, brings new life to the home and we even get the sense that there could be some romance between him and Anna.
Tension cultivated, denouements are tossed at us with gusto for the rest of the film. Halfway through the 113 minutes there is a Big Reveal, a this-man-isn’t-who-you-thought-he-was. This would probably have been enough, but then we are treated to a number of other untie-the-knots, namely: deceit from the protagonist, Anna; an attempted suicide; a you-thought-he’d-died moment; and even a surprise fiancée. (Incidentally, the surprise fiancée is one of the most compelling characters in the movie, despite only having a few minutes’ screen time to show it.) By the end, it feels like the energy you’ve put into suspending your disbelief is being exploited somewhat.
Édouard Manet, Le Suicidé
Though artistic tropes are rather over-used (poetry-sharing, violin-playing, appreciating paintings, and dancing all feature in both the burgeoning relationship and the lost one), the use of the Manet painting Le Suicidé is surely one of the best things about the film. Appearing repeatedly (in disguise at first) to tie together the different turns of the storyline, the painting depicts a man who has committed suicide lying on a bed. Unfortunately, as Anna stares at it in the ending of the endings, we are lacking in knowledge about what her hopes and dreams might be. Perhaps they lie in the young man next to her in the museum: the one she has a brief conversation with. God forbid she has any hopes and dreams that do not involve marrying fragile young artists. (True, we do see her playing piano a few times; but always as accompaniment to Adrien.)
Pascaline Chavanne’s styling is sumptuous and full of glorious details that feed you that pre-flapper-and-suffragette moment like a plain-looking but surprisingly tasty hors d’oeuvres. Adrien’s hair is always falling in his face, and not in a suave way. His moustache looks like it has just landed and perched on his upper lip: a precarious arrangement, fitting for a sensitive person. Anna spends every second looking immaculate, with earrings glistening out from under carefully tilted pinned-brimmed hats.
Anna’s styling being quite glorious for its own sake, the characterisation doesn’t match it, though Paula Beer’s acting is outstanding. I am left wishing I had a clearer idea of what aspect of her personality her style has been designed to represent. This is surprising in a film from the director of 8 Mujeres. Still, wishy-washy character design doesn’t stop Beer from playing every scene with consistent, sparkling subtlety of movement and expression. Pierre Niney (Adrien), too, holds up a very effective sensitive young artist with a secret. I feel that I type the same comments too often about films: that the script didn’t warrant the outstanding quality of the acting.
If the protagonist could have been more three-dimensional, the theme of common humanity across borders is successfully brought to the front of our minds. Working out how best to take it in (French-German audio; Catalan subtitles) was a labour of love for me. That we can one minute be learning each other’s languages and the next minute killing each other is a point explicitly made by Adrien. Here the sharing of language – the epitome of connection – is contrasted with killing each other: the epitome of disconnection. Multilingualism in films often adds to their universality; here it was effective, if not subtle, in doing so.