Frantz’s secret

The film is tasteful but lacks that certain ‘Ozon layer’.

Frantz  (photo credit: PR)
(photo credit: PR)
Directed by Francois Ozon
With Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stotzner, Marie Gruber
Running time: 113 minutes Rating: PG-13
(for thematic elements including brief war violence)
In French and German.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.
The latest movie by versatile director Francois Ozon is a well-intentioned anti-war period piece. Frantz is loosely based on the play Broken Lullaby, which was made into a film in 1932 by Ernst Lubitsch. Frantz tells the story of a German family recovering from the loss of their son, Frantz, in World War I, and how a visit by a mysterious Frenchman who knew Frantz changes their lives.
The title character has already been dead for about a year when the film opens, but he is very much alive in the memory of his family and his fiancee, Anna (Paula Beer). Anna lives with Frantz’s parents (Ernst Stotzner and Marie Gruber) and helps Frantz’s father, a doctor, run his clinic in a small, quiet town in Germany. The parents are devastated by their loss, and Frantz is never far from Anna’s mind, and she visits his grave daily. When other suitors come to call, she ignores them and is upset by his mother’s gentle suggestion that after some time passes, she should think about marrying. The early sections that detail the family’s pain, which will clearly never leave them, are the most effective in the film.
But while the parents can never move on, Anna has a choice, and she chooses to devote herself to her late fiance’s memory. Her life is anchored by her mourning, and when a handsome stranger turns up at Frantz’s grave, this event stirs the family. However, Frantz’s father is upset when they learn that the mysterious mourner is a Frenchman, named Adrien (Pierre Niney). Any Frenchman and all hint of anything French repulses and angers the father, but the mother and Anna are intrigued, and they listen to Adrien’s story.
He tells them that he and Frantz (who is played in flashbacks by Anton von Lucke) were friends in Paris before the war, when the two of them would play the violin together and visit museums. It seems for a few minutes that the two young men were more than friends, but while the movie suggests this, it then pulls away.
Anna and the mother are overjoyed to meet someone who spent time with Frantz, and he gradually win over the father, who overcomes his reservations and allows this young man into their home and their hearts.
Adrien and Anna form a close friendship that seems about to blossom into a romance, but there is an ache in Adrien’s soul.
Something Adrien has told the family is not true, and it’s difficult for Anna to guess what Adrien can’t tell them. Risking hostility and ostracism from the townspeople, she seeks to make Adrien a central part of her life, but he remains just out of reach, and she can’t understand why.
The unraveling of the mystery of Adrien and Frantz’s relationship doesn’t play out quite as you might imagine, but when it is revealed, the movie loses steam.
While the movie doesn’t go for the cliches that the story might suggest, the story is so subtle and understated, that it doesn’t leave much of an impression. The actors are all good, especially those who portray the four main characters.
Pierre Niney and Paula Beer are especially appealing, but their performances aren’t compelling enough to carry the film.
Seeing Frantz, you would never guess that Ozon also directed Double Lover, a sexy but empty thriller about a woman involved with a psychiatrist and his evil twin, which is currently in theaters. Ozon’s best movies, notably the 2003 Swimming Pool, combine romance and noir, and Frantz does this as well, but in a muted way. Ozon’s films can be enjoyably trashy and full of energy, but Frantz is so low key and tasteful that it doesn’t make much of an impression. It’s as if Ozon felt that in order to tackle important themes, he had to make a film that is so delicate, it isn’t much fun.