Movie Review: Frantz (2016)
At first I thought he’d killed her fiancé (and their son) during the Great War, and that’s why this almond-eyed, sensitive Frenchman was visiting the grave of Frantz Hoffmeister in Quedlinburg, Germany in the spring of 1919. But after he told them the story about meeting Frantz in Paris before the war—seeing the Louvre together, and Manet’s painting of the man “with his head back”—and you realize the grief he’s feeling and the secret he still seems to be keeping, I wondered “Maybe they were lovers?”
Turns out it’s Door #1.
I liked “Frantz” a lot but didn’t quite love it. The French academy seems to feel the same way. It was nominated for 11 Césars and won one: cinematography.
It’s based on the 1932 Hollywood movie “Broken Lullabye,” directed by Ernst Lubitsch, which was based on the 1925 play by Maurice Rostand, L'homme que j'ai tué, or The Man I Killed. Both earlier versions focus on the French soldier seeking absolution, Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney, “Yves Saint Laurent”), but “Frantz,” written and directed by François Ozon (“Swimming Pool,” “8 Femme”), and filmed in black and white, makes the smarter decision, I believe, to focus on the girl, Anna (Paula Beer), the fiancée to the dead soldier. It adds mystery. It makes us wonder what the Frenchman is up to.
I was pulled into the post-Great War world right away. Anna buys flowers, looks at the new dresses in the shop window but walks away, down the street, past the two former soldiers who comment on how pretty she is, and into the cemetery ... where she finds flowers already on the grave of her fiancé. She asks a caretaker about them, and he says they were placed there by a Frenchman. Then he spits in contempt. “Right,” I thought. “That hatred doesn’t go away.”
Anna is still living with Frantz’s parents, Dr. and Frauline Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner and Marie Gruber), and being pursued by Kreutz (Johann von Bulow), who offers little but financial stability. Like much of the world at this point, she’s engaged to the dead.
The mystery of the Frenchman, and his connection to Frantz, wakes her up. She opens up, particularly to him, even as he seems wary of her, forever backing off. We get a beautiful scene where he agrees to play Frantz’s old violin for the family, Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20, and Ozon allows color to creep back into the film. It’s a bold move but it works. When Adrien faints, the world goes to black-and-white again. Eventually he tells Anna the truth: He was the French soldier who killed Frantz; he’d come to Quedlinburg to ask forgiveness. In the wake of this revelation, she turns cold, refuses to forgive him, but maintains the illusion of “Frantz’s friend” for the Hoffmeisters. He returns to France.
The second half is all Ozon—it wasn’t in the play or the original movie—and it doesn’t quite work.
Anna’s despair is so great—the man she was falling in love with killed the man she loved—that she tries to drown herself. A local saves her. Bedridden, she begins to contemplate settling for Kreutz when Mrs. Hoffmeister dismisses the notion. They had hoped, she says quietly, that Anna might wind up with Adrien. Caught in the illusion of “Frantz’s friend,” maybe even beginning to believe it herself, Anna travels to Paris to find him.
Some good moments. Manet’s painting in the Louvre turns out to be “Le Suicide,” and she worries Adrien has taken his own life. Through the hospitals she discovers the suicide-death of Rivoire. At this point I thought the movie would be bookended by Anna’s graveyard visits: first her fiancé, then the man who killed her fiancé. But that Rivoire turns out to be a colonel who lost his legs. She finds her Rivoire living in a country estate, with a prim mother and a fiancée of his own, Fanny (Alice de Lencquesaing, looking like Marion Cotillard’s not-as-pretty younger sister). Anna agrees to stay but, mirroring his fainting spell, she flees an evening piano recital. The next day at the train station, Anna forgives Adrien for Frantz’s death, while Adrien reveals that he’s getting married mostly for his mother, and Fanny, but not himself. They finally kiss, and for a moment he tries to change the course of events but she tells him it’s too late. We last see her back in the Louvre, at the Manet painting, telling another young mustached man that she likes the painting because it makes her want to live.
Shape of things to come
“Frantz” is gorgeously photographed, and has a deliberate pace and seeming simplicity. Another scene I loved is when Dr. Hoffmeister confronts Kreutz’s pro-German meeting group, who condemn his friendship with the Frenchman, saying: We celebrated when we slaughtered them and they celebrated when they slaughtered us. We cheered the death of children.
Stotzner is magnificent as the doctor—his bedrock gravitas, his searching eyes—and Beer is quite lovely as Anna: her neck; the way she moves. But the ending doesn’t resonate. More, what drives the plot, Adrien’s need for forgiveness from the family of the man he killed, is, to me, so monstrously selfish that I lost interest in the character. When it turns out he’s living on a country estate, my contempt doubled.
It’s worth seeing, though. I'd like to see more movies like it. Hovering in the background throughout is not only Frantz (as palpable a presence as Rebecca in “Rebecca”) but the war to come. Even if “Le Suicide” makes Anna want to live, we know she will live long enough to see more death than she can imagine.