Starring Paula Beer. In German and French, with English subtitles. Rated PG
French writer-director François Ozon’s latest genre study wears its history proudly. Set just after the First World War, the film draws on All Quiet on the Western Front, Carl Dreyer’s silent films, and, most overtly, François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, which placed skittish Frenchwoman Jeanne Moreau between best friends and former wartime enemies Henri Serre and Oskar Werner.
In Frantz, the woman is a levelheaded German, and the domestic side of her love triangle is already kaput. Still dressed in black, the lovely Anna (Paula Beer) is so devoted to her titular fiancé that she lives with his parents in a remote Saxon village. The locals don’t exactly welcome a lone French visitor, regardless of his intentions.
Tall, narrow-faced Pierre Niney played the blond fashion icon in 2014’s Yves Saint Laurent, but as the mysterious Adrien Rivoire, he resembles Truffaut’s Jim, down to the wavy dark hair and pencil mustache. It seems he knew Frantz before the war, when both were music students in Paris. The dead soldier’s stern doctor father (cast standout Ernst Stötzner) is furious, but his mother (Marie Gruber) invites Adrien into their home, where the Frenchman’s story unfolds gradually. You don’t have to be a German nationalist (like those heel-clickers in the local beer hall) to wonder where he’s really coming from.
The film’s starkly beautiful black-and-white compositions occasionally bloom into muted period colour, especially when amour is suggested. Its archaic qualities are well-earned, and Frantz is itself a loose remake of Broken Lullaby, Ernst Lubitsch’s antiwar drama from 1932, just before Hitler’s rise and the director’s move to Hollywood, where he concentrated on notably antitotalitarian comedies like Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be.
Little in this update lends itself to comedy, and despite the richness of imagery and influences, the almost two-hour movie is certainly dampened by its unvaried tone. Even after the stately action shifts to Paris, everyone’s feelings are so cautiously deliberated, it’s hard to get excited about their remaining options, romantic or otherwise. This is a movie to admire, not love.