It’s 1919, and Germany is still grieving the Great War. Anna (Paula Beer), whose fiancé, Frantz, was killed in the trenches, regularly visits the gravesite of her beloved in the small mountain town where he is buried. One day, she notices a distraught young man, a stranger, placing flowers on Frantz’s grave.
This is the mystery that initiates François Ozon’s austerely compelling “Frantz,” and it is soon resolved, only to give way to a larger one. The stranger is Adrien (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman who claims he befriended Frantz, a Francophile, in Frantz’s prewar days in Paris. They played violin together, visited the Louvre, and caroused in the dance halls.
When Adrien, who also served as a soldier in the war, first approaches Frantz’s parents to offer his condolences, he is thrown out by Frantz’s father, Hans (Ernst Stötzner), a stern, bristly-bearded physician who angrily announces, “All Frenchmen killed my only son.”
But the woebegone Adrien is persistent, and eventually he finds his way into the parents’ good graces. Hans and his wife, Magda (Marie Gruber), and Anna, who lives with them as if she were their own daughter, are starved for stories about Frantz. Slowly, Adrien becomes a kind of surrogate for them. Magda remarks on how much Adrien and Frantz are alike, both “shy but stormy.” Anna and Adrien go on countryside hikes together. Nothing is amorous about their connection, and yet there is an unstated attraction. A revelation from Adrien, occurring about halfway into the movie, upends their communion, and he swiftly retreats to Paris. But this is only the beginning of a new phase in Anna’s convoluted quest to resolve her feelings, her fate.
Ozon films most of “Frantz,” which is in French and German with English subtitles, in muted black and white, with occasional dabs of color for the flashback scenes involving Adrien and Frantz (Anton von Lucke). As a way of signaling a rejuvenation of hope, he also utilizes color for a few of the present-day sequences, such as those windswept countryside excursions. One could easily imagine this film being rendered in a high romantic style, but Ozon’s austerity gives the story an almost classical rigor. (He loosely borrows from a 1932 Ernst Lubitsch movie, “Broken Lullaby,” which in turn was derived from a French play by Maurice Rostand.) The drama plays out in measured syncopation, with no scene or moment held too long.
The abiding theme of “Frantz” is the persistence of love and how we are capable of transcending ourselves, and deluding ourselves, in its name. One of the local Germans, Kreutz (Johann von Bülow), regularly attempts to woo Anna and is regularly rebuffed. “I will make you forget him,” he says to her about Frantz. “I don’t want to forget him,” she answers, with the matter-of-fact steeliness that characterizes so much of her outward appearance. It’s a tribute to Beer’s remarkable performance that we can see beneath her armor almost immediately; Anna’s despair shines through her bright eyes. She honors her fiancé, but, as Magda tells her, as if she were applying a balm, she must look to her future. At the same time, Magda encourages Adrien, who is hesitant to do so, to indulge the family in his memories of Frantz. She tells him, “Don’t be afraid to make us happy.”
The sources of this happiness become far more complex when Adrien’s revelation is imparted (only to Anna). At this point the movie’s moral compass spins. In a powerful confessional booth scene, Anna asks a priest if unburdening the truth to Frantz’s parents would only cause more pain. In “Frantz,” there is much blame, and much forgiveness, to go around. The German boys who died in droves in World War I were, as Hans admits, propelled to the front by their fathers. “We are responsible,” he says. And Anna, in coming to terms with Adrien after seeking him out in Paris, opens herself up to a larger and more complicated forgiveness than she might ever have imagined. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief war violence.)