Director: François Ozon
War is futile. Love is a burden. Living is liberation. Our parents are our killers. To call François Ozon’s FRANTZ a complicated affair would be a wallop of an understatement. In his noble attempt at juggling a smorgasbord of disparate themes, his latest outing (one that premiered at the Venice film festival in 2016, but only saw the light of day in the Spring of 2017) embarks on a road trip of sentimentality, coating its celluloid in the melancholy of a black and white romance. And it’s all these aesthetic choices that culminate in a rather perplexing auteurist outing: one riddled with lazy dialogue, uneven performances from its bi-lingual stars, and an ethically questionable core prerogative. FRANTZ isn’t so much a flawed endeavor at launch as it is a film that paints itself into a monochromatic corner.
After a German soldier is killed in the First World War, a grieving bride-to-be discovers a mysterious Frenchman repeatedly visiting the empty grave of her fiancé. His shy demure radiates with a deep sadness. This man soon reveals himself as a friend of Frantz (the aforementioned German soldier), and forms a friendship with the fiancée and her in-laws. Metatextually, there is something quite fascinating at play here. As viewers in the 21st century, we can’t help but read into the Frenchman’s timid, soft-spoken persona as one of repressed homosexuality. It is almost as if Ozon has clued us in on a character trait that flies right over every character’s head. And perhaps the most compelling directorial decision here is that this closeted homosexuality remains unspoken of. It is never validated nor completely denied, allowing the unreliable narrator at hand to possibly alter the very film we are watching. It is almost as if FRANTZ is a gay film that has been changed out of fear of being outed.
“For a man from the trenches, your skin is silky smooth!”
Much of FRANTZ plays out this way, from its approach to characterizing its protagonists to how it builds its world. I can’t help but think of Michael Haneke’s masterpiece, THE WHITE RIBBON, when discussing post Great War small-town Germany, and it’s also here that I made my first mistake. Stepping in to watch Ozon’s film, I had to slap myself silly until I had come to terms with that fact that FRANTZ bears no thematic resemblance to Haneke’s film. On one hand, it’s a delight to see this milieu being explored with such authenticity; the Volksball and small-town gossip breathes life into the desaturated state of a mourning people. In this sense, I quite admire Ozon for remaining so truthful to his era. His characters, their motivations, and the way they respond to one another is preserved with a pristine attention to detail. It’s easy to write off character behavior as idiosyncratic, but it all feels rather true to a time and place so far gone that it is but a relic of history.
Having said all that, I feel that Ozon does tap into a sense of nationalism that Haneke uses as a foil in THE WHITE RIBBON. As such, I wouldn’t go as far as to call FRANTZ completely untouched by Haneke’s work. The problem is that Ozon, at least to a point, remains rather uncertain about where to take his story. The narrative fulcrum centers around a woman’s liberation from the memory of her fiancé. The secondary plot point (at least for a large portion of FRANTZ’s running time), revolves around the assumed gay romance between two soldiers in wartime. But the third, and arguably most interesting, is one of paternal remorse; a story of a father who grows to accept that he and his friends fed the German people with the ammunition to send their children to certain death. A notable highlight are the performances from elderly German characters, men who showcase a conflicted national pride. It’s visibly incongruous with the rest of Ozon’s narrative, but it finds its footing somewhere in the visit of the mysterious Frenchman, a character who is initially shunned by Frantz’s family and the townsfolk, only to be understood with time.
“Blitzkrieg! I’m in the Ardennes”
FRANTZ is a complicated film exactly because its characters aren’t easy to read. They are a product of their period and function as such. The motivations behind the Frenchman’s visit reveal themselves to be rather selfish, but also befitting of 1930’s Europe: a time where a man’s self-interest trumped the emotional burden placed on any woman (doubly so if we read into the supposed gay subtext). To that extent, I applaud Ozon for finding a way to tell a feminist narrative in such a confining framework. The problem with Ozon’s narrative approach is that his film makes its job so unashamedly easy. Switching from black and white to color cheapens the effect of any emotional scene, and the use of a violin leitmotif is tear-bating incarnate. It’s a shame that FRANTZ is an objectively beautiful film, because it’s so crass in the aesthetic choices it makes to tell its story.
“In German schools, we teach French. And in French schools, they teach German. And when they grow up, they are told to kill each other.” So goes one of FRANTZ’s most impactful monologues. I think it’s rather indicative that Ozon’s most profound soliloquy is one that has virtually nothing to do with the story that it moonlights as. I wish I could use this as a compliment, but FRANTZ’s greatest hurdle remains that its three threads never weave into a coherent patchwork. On one hand, we have a sentimental romance of lost love and memory a la A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT. On the other hand, we have a touching portrait of a woman’s liberation from her dead fiancé by way of Kieslowski’s BLUE. And finally, there is a tale of mourning in wartime told from the perspective of traumatized parents. While all three of these could easily be their own exceptional film, Ozon tries, and fails, to mold them together, opting for cheap aesthetic gimmicks in order to counterbalance the density of the screenplay he has written. In many ways, FRANTZ is too big for its britches. A war uniform that just doesn’t fit.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend