(Note: This review was originally published after the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September 2016.)
There is exactly one great sequence in “Frantz,” the latest film from modern master François Ozon (“The New Girlfriend,” “8 Women”), and even though it’s a short scene, it creates an impact that suggests that it was the entire reason for the film’s existence.
The rest of “Frantz,” unfortunately, is a mostly dreary and heavy-handed affair in which the director (who co-wrote with Philippe Piazzo, loosely adapting a play by Maurice Rostand) examines the damaging cost of nationalism and the toll that war takes on winners and losers, survivors and casualties alike. (Rostand’s play was previously the basis for Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 “Broken Lullaby.”)
German star Paula Beer plays Anna, whose titular fiancée was killed in World War I; her life seems to have been suspended since then, as she continues to live with his parents (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber as the Hoffmeisters) and pays daily visits to tend Frantz’s grave. One day, she sees that someone else has left roses; the keeper of the cemetery knows nothing of the other mourner, save that he is French.
Soon Anna finds Adrien (Pierre Niney, “Yves Saint Laurent”) at the graveyard and brings him home to meet the Hoffmeisters. Adrien reveals that he and Frantz were close friends before the war, and his tales of visiting the Louvre and playing music with the dead man enchants this mourning family, who happily embrace Adrien as one of their own.
Other townspeople are less hospitable to this stranger; it’s 1919, and the wounds of the Great War are still fresh. This Frenchman is treated like an interloper, and after he breaks down with a surprising reveal, even Anna sends him away. Eventually, she feels compelled to forgive him and takes off for Paris to track him down.
At this point, Ozon engages in a deadening series of parallel scenes — Adrien was spat upon by Germans who hate the French; Anna gets the stink-eye from the border guard and from fellow passengers when they realize she’s German. These A-then-B moments do at least bring us to the aforementioned highlight: when Adrien is in Anna’s village, a group of men sing the German national anthem loudly in his presence; later, when Anna is in a Paris café, the presence of a group of military officers prompts the patrons there to being singing “La Marseillaise.”
Decades of World War II movies have conditioned moviegoers to get uncomfortable when Germans start singing about the Fatherland, and to cheer when the French national anthem is sung. But the way Ozon shoots the Paris scene, it radiates jingoistic xenophobia, especially with the English subtitles spelling out the lyrical content about invading soldiers coming for your women and soaking the fields with impure blood.
It’s a shocking moment that puts a new spin on centuries of history: forget the famous moment in “Casablanca” where Rick’s customers bravely drown out Nazi soldiers; this scene makes the song play more like the chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” sequence from “Cabaret.” For a French filmmaker to turn this Gallic rallying cry into something sinister is a truly audacious act.
The rest of “Frantz,” unfortunately, isn’t nearly as inventive, and by the third act it mostly jettisons politics in favor of contrived weepiness. (As such, its weaknesses are similar to those of another Venice entry set after WWI, “The Light Between Oceans.”)
There is, at least, pleasure to be found in Beer and Niney’s performances and in their anguished chemistry. Pascal Marti’s lush black and white cinematography (the occasional lapses into color are meant to be symbolic, but they’re merely distracting) often captures the leads like stars from the dawn of cinema; there’s a close-up of Beer through the lattice of a confessional that calls to mind Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
Between Brexit and that presidential candidate who likes to quote Charles Lindbergh slogans, the time is certainly right for a movie that addresses blind nationalism and its transition into fascism, but “Frantz” too often belabors the obvious and ultimately blunts its own message.