Film Review: Frantz – Subtlety, intelligence and affecting sensitivity

François Ozon's Frantz sees a young Frenchman weep at the grave of a fallen German soldier in a film that attempts to unravel the mystery of grief

Frantz begins in provincial Germany in 1919. We’re in a quiet, handsome, outwardly respectable small town, but it doesn’t take long to see how much of the place has been ruined by the recent war. In the opening scene a young, elegantly dressed woman walks through the busy market square. She ignores the crowds and the horse-drawn carts to head straight to the graveyard, where she lays flowers at the headstone of her fiancé, killed in battle just before peace was declared.

The war dead are the town’s most attention-demanding constituents; the film is even named after one of them. A visit to the doctor prompts a howl of grief from the medic over his fallen son. The arrival of a young Frenchman stirs speculation over the German deaths he was responsible for. This is a place where most roads – not just the one tread by the woman on her way to the cemetery – lead to painful remembrance.

The woman’s name is Anna, and her fiancé was Frantz, fatally shot in the dying days of the war. Anna (a quiet marvel of a performance from German actress Paula Beer) now lives with Frantz’s parents, a broken-hearted elderly couple. Anna has boxed in her sorrow through joyless domestic routine. When a middle-aged neighbour proposes marriage, suggesting it will help her forget Frantz, she reacts with puzzlement: why would she want to do that?

But into this traumatised situation comes Adrien, a mysterious Frenchman. Anna finds him weeping over Frantz’s grave and he admits to being friends with him from his days as a student in Paris.

Frantz’s parents are warmed by his memories of their son, and soon Anna is drawn to this tall, gaunt, melancholy man of her own age (played by Pierre Niney, who brings a whiff of courtly glamour from his role as designer Yves Saint Laurent in the recent biopic). Slowly, through her encounters with Adrien, she comes to life again.

The film is shot in rich monochrome, but occasionally this world of graveyard greys bursts into colour, most often when Adrien is stirring Anna’s memories of Frantz. It’s a jarring switch, and the colour scheme is oddly stylised, as if the image were a hand-tinted postcard. These sudden intrusions of colour add a note of artifice, of doubt even, to the film’s otherwise carefully wrought naturalistic mood. Are Anna’s brief experiences of happiness delusional? Director François Ozon seems to be placing our trust in Anna’s grey-on-grey, grief-stricken reality – everything else has the status of a kind of make-believe.

That element of make-believe, and its less benign counterpart, deception, becomes ever more pronounced as the film progresses. Is Adrien exactly what he claims to be? Perhaps he and Frantz were lovers – a reading that the film’s dreamy flashbacks to the men together certainly encourages. Or, as Anna and Adrien grow more intimate, perhaps he’s hiding something else…

I’ll leave it there, for fear of plot spoilers. I will admit that the film’s Hitchcockian mysteries are resolved to varying degrees of satisfaction. They involve a trip to Paris for Anna, much changed by her relationship with Adrien, in an episode that stretches plausibility and the audience’s goodwill.

But, essentially, the film is concerned with a deeper mystery: how to deal with the aftermath of a grief like Anna’s; and director Ozon tackles this concern with subtlety, intelligence and affecting sensitivity.

Frantz is in cinemas from May 12