REVIEW: Frantz

21 03 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Cinema still runs low on great films about the Great War this side of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Though more people ought to give another look to Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” roundly dismissed after being dumped in theaters over Labor Day weekend, they should also look at François Ozon’s “Frantz,” a film which debuted just a few days later at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. Rather than steeping his post-war milieu in melodrama like the former director, Ozon stages a dimly austere meditation on forgiveness in continental Europe.

The pared back simplicity of the black and white visual scheme, recalling the crispness of Haneke’s similarly two-toned “The White Ribbon,” might come as shocking to any Francophile cinema fans who know Ozon for his fizzy, vivacious filmmaking. The occasional stylistic flourishes do make their way into “Frantz,” punctuating the tense silences by reminding us of a joy seemingly absent in the wake of World War I’s devastation. But the overwhelming majority of the film is a masterclass in controlling ambiance and delicate unravelling of repressed emotion.

Of course, little of this occurs while letting the film wash over. “Frantz” begins as a simple mystery as Anna (Paula Beer), the widow of a German solider, observes a Frenchman repeatedly visiting her departed husband’s grave. He eventually introduces himself as Adrien (Pierre Niney), and he claims to have come in order to pay respects to the soldier he too knew. Showing up to a small, provincial town little over a year after the Armistice is a bold move for Adrien given that, as someone declares, “every Frenchman is my son’s murderer.”

The ensuing engagement and estrangement between he and Anna illustrates the difficult process of healing and remarrying while the wounds of armed conflict are still fresh. 1920 was still a time of hope for a brighter future; maybe the Great War would live up to its title of “The War to End All Wars” after all. But Adrien, Anna and Europe as a whole know the temptation of a comforting lie to paper over difficult fissures in a relationship. Ozon never shows these chasms in “Frantz,” though they loom ever larger as the post-war tranquility appears increasingly illusory. B+

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