Two things occurred to me while watching the post-Great War drama Frantz (2016), the latest film from prolific French writer-director Francois Ozon.
Google confirmed my thoughts and it was here I was able to find a brief similarity between Ozon and Woody Allen, for it is this American with whom Ozon is often compared.
Since 1997, Ozon has directed 18 feature films, a similar output to Allen’s earlier career – which he still holds up pretty well in old age.
However, it is their seeming desire to honour their film heroes where another comparison emerges. Woody Allen has made many films honouring the famous directors who influence him and Ozon has matched him in this regard, especially with Frantz, modelled on the 1932 Broken Lullaby, director Ernst Lubitsch’s only sound film which isn’t a comedy.
This was the first thing I noticed about Frantz. Though I am nowhere near a student of Lubitsch, the sophistication and style he brought to his films became a touchstone for Hollywood moviemakers of the 1930s and 40s. While watching Frantz, I thought the scenes in the Hoffmeister household were straight Lubitsch.
Even the appearance of Ernst Stozner as Dr Hans Hoffmeister reminded me of Frank Morgan in one of Lubitsch’s most famous films, The Shop Around the Corner (1940). In this sweet movie, James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan play co-employees who cannot stand one another but fall in love as each other’s pen pal. It was re-made with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as You’ve Got Mail (1998), incorporating the internet as the modern post.
Another striking similarity of Ozon and Allen is their connection with female actors. No director in history has drawn more award-winning acting performances from women than Allen. Ozon’s two most successful films, Swimming Pool (2003) and 8 Women (2002) are dominated by female casts.
The first starred Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier and the latter also appeared in 8 Women alongside French film royalty, Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart and Virginie Ledoyen.
In Frantz, the director has plenty of acting talent to work with, Pierre Niney (Adrien), Paula Beer (Anna), Stozner and Marie Gruber (Magda Hoffmeister). The performances of the women are particularly good and Beer surpasses them all by her amount of time on screen. She brings luminance to her role as the grieving fiancee of Frantz, the Hoffmeister’s son who has been killed in the latter stages of WWI.
And here lies the second thing that struck me. Did she look like Leslie Caron, the gamine-star of Gigi (1958) or was I confusing her with someone else? I feel only in costume as Anna are the two women separable in these images.
So enough research and showing off, what of Frantz? Why is it a good film?
The story telling is sweet against its mainly black and white canvas. Information gradually builds on who is the Frenchman visiting Frantz’s grave in the small village where the dead man’s parents live, comforted by Anna who is regarded by them as a ‘daughter’. Of course, the remains of Frantz are not in the grave as he is buried somewhere on the western front.
Indeed it is this absence which makes the Hoffmeisters – despite the anti-French feeling of the doctor and the village – embrace Adrien as a pre-war friend of their son and also provides Anna’s selfless caring for the feelings and needs of the older couple.
The viewer wonders at Adrien’s behaviour as to what form his relationship with Frantz took but the three Germans are prepared to ignore this as he provides a substitute of masculine youth in their household. When, because of this French connection, the men’s group which gathers in the bar of Adrien’s hotel, spurns a drink offer from the doctor, he delivers a lecture as to the futility of war. It was “we” who willingly sent our sons to their deaths and not the fault of a foreign power he says.
One can see the advance of National Socialism on this group, who temporarily heed the good doctor’s speech. Frantz is set in 1919 and well less than a decade later, the message of Adolf Hitler begins to stir these feelings again. Nationalism also plays a part in the Parisian scenes (Anna goes to find Adrien when he stops writing). Military officers entering a cafe are saluted by the crowd, who sing Le Marsellaise, so stirring in French during Casablanca (1942) but rendered bellicose when the lyrics appear in English subtitles in Frantz.
Again the trip to Paris throws up more questions than the viewer can immediately answer and the perhaps expected, neatly-tied knot of Adrien replacing Frantz in Anna’s affections is not going to be as seamless as the romantic-minded viewer might hope.
We are left with Anna sitting beside an Adrien look-alike in the Louvre. They are viewing Le Suicide, a painting by Edouard Manet from his later years (c 1887-91). The painting plays a major part in the film as Adrien lies to the Hoffmeisters that he and Frantz would often go to the gallery where their son particularly liked a painting of a young man whose body is thrown back on a bed.
Where will Anna finish? She is not with Adrien but stays in Paris and writes letters to the Hoffmeisters telling them happy stories of Adrien’s career and her lifestyle. Her caring continues in absentia.
Ozon uses colour only fleetingly during Frantz and to me it indicated hope. Was this final scene at the Louvre shot in colour? I cannot remember but I hope so because ultimately I wanted Frantz to be a film about hope.
A film that gave hope to young people like Adrien and Anna to live positive, fruitful lives without the spectre of war crushing so many of their loved ones, both figuratively and with the haunted memories for those left grieving.