François Ozon’s Frantz is a luxuriantly melancholy, sumptuous period drama about the lies, illusions, deception and self-deception that people engage in to make life bearable.
It is set in 1919 in rural Germany in the immediate aftermath of the first World War. The story (without any major spoilers) goes something like this. Anna is the widow of Frantz — the eponymous young German, killed in the final months of the war, whom we only ever see in flashback. Anna continues to live with his bereaved parents — a stereotypically Teutonic matriarch and a paterfamilias, who is the respectable town doctor.
Visiting Frantz’s grave one day, Anna is surprised to find a stranger present. It transpires that this is a Frenchman — Adrian Rivoire, who was a friend of Frantz when he visited Paris before the war. But a Frenchman is naturally unwelcome in Germany at this time. It is later revealed that Frantz was in fact a pacifist and his father had forced him to enlist for the sake of honour. Adrian too had fought in the war but is of a delicate, fragile, morose disposition.
Adrian gradually becomes part of the family as he regales them with stories of his adventures with Frantz in Paris. He describes their trips to the Louvre to see the paintings of Manet. In effect, Adrian becomes a surrogate for Frantz.
Meanwhile, at their regular meetings, the town’s menfolk complain bitterly about the humiliation of the fatherland — these appear to be pre-echoes of the coming horrors of the 1930s. As with Haneke’s masterpiece The White Ribbon, set during the same period, there are intimations of the spectre of fascism and the complicity of the petit bourgeoisie. When the men refuse to accept a round of beer from the doctor, on the basis of his admitting a Frenchman into his household, he is forced to rebuke them. He points out that they as fathers betrayed their sons sending them to their death — a reworking perhaps of the sins of the fathers revisited upon the sons.
Adrian and Anna become closer as they start to fall in love. Anna wonders what kind of relationship Frantz and Adrian enjoyed teasing him as to whether they shared a woman. One is reminded of the line in Byron’s letters about how the most intimate relationship that a young man experiences is the companionship of another kindred male spirit — a bond of affection forged through mutual artistic and emotional sensibilities.
Then halfway through comes the rupture of a sudden revelation forcing Adrian to return post-haste to France. Adrian had lied in order to acquaint himself with Frantz’s family. The disclosure is so shocking that Anna decides not to tell Frantz’s parents and to perpetuate the illusion. At confession, the priest also advises her that the truth will not help.
Anna receives letters from Adrian and is forced to invent a narrative in order to allay any suspicions of the parents. When Anna’s letter to Adrian returns undelivered, she sets off to Paris in order to find him. There, she discovers that she did not really know either Frantz or Adrian.
In essence, every character in the story constructs illusions and engages in deception or self-deception in order to sustain themselves or others. The biggest illusion in the film being that of the nationalism and patriotism that led to the destruction of war and the deaths of millions.
And on a meta level of postmodernism, Frantz reveals that art itself is the greatest lie or illusion in its representation of reality. Hence the gorgeous flourishes of colours at episodes of heightened emotion before returning to stark black and white or the deliberate use of music at moments of poignancy in order to pull at our heart-strings and manipulate the audience.
In effect, Ozon’s film revels in the artificial conventions of art. The story is populated with stock plot devices and characters. The war, the love story and the tragic melodrama are all well-worn genres. The farewell at the train station is another such cliché. The character of Adrian is a stereotype that could have been lifted out of countless sentimental novels — perhaps Goethe’s Young Werther.
Ozon might as well be sticking two fingers up to the ghost of his cinematic father — I’m thinking of Jean-Luc Godard’s comment that cinema is the truth 24 times a second. Admittedly, it is possible that some of these lies — those of art for example — might lead to a greater truth. Ozon hints at this in the final scene with the shared experience of Manet’s Le Suicidé tantalisingly suggesting new adventures to come. Or maybe just the fostering of new illusions.