Not long after the war to end all wars but still a few uneasy decades before the next, a young Frenchman (Pierre Niney) arrives in a small German town. His presence there, in a place near the border where both nationalities had shared art and culture and learned each other’s languages but is now where the French should fear to tread, is the source of much speculation.
Anna (Paula Beer) soon witnesses the young man leaving flowers on the empty grave of her fiancée, Frantz; his body buried in a mass grave on a battlefield in France, and tells this to her fiancée’s parents, the Hoffmeisters (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber), with whom Anna lives. In mourning, the three conjure up Frantz (Anton von Lucke) by foisting a hoped-for narrative on the visitor: Surely, Frantz and Adrien were friends before the war in Paris, where Frantz had gone to study.
Adrien, desiring to keep the fellowship by avoiding spilling his secret, complies, and he recounts his imagined memories, realized in soft color in an otherwise black-and-white film, to salve their grieving hearts. Collective wishful thinking is a powerful facilitator to denial.
This first act of director François Ozon’s (“Swimming Pool,” “In the House”) latest film was lifted by Ozon and Philippe Piazzo almost directly from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 earnest antiwar film, “Broken Lullaby,” the director’s only film in sound that isn’t a comedy. (Lubitsch based the movie on Maurice Rostand’s play L’homme que j’ai tué, or ”The man I killed.”) Where the two differ is that Ozon has much less faith in the message and the messenger of the movie.
As if Adrian’s guilty conscience isn’t enough to capture the interest of his audience, Ozon embeds this section with lurid suggestions for alternate motives. Show me a viewer who doesn’t consider a relationship between Frantz and Adrien beyond the trenches of war, and I’ll show you someone who wasn’t paying attention. Yet, the insinuations are pointless. If that isn’t distracting enough, in the second act Ozon offers even more aspersions, particularly on Frantz’s time in France before the war, and builds only blind alleys of suspense.
Since the ubiquity of color film, the choice to shoot in black and white comes with a built-in psychological component. For this film, Ozon purposely exploits this shorthand to tease mystery and indecency—in line with early Hitchcock—where there is none. It’s as if Ozon, lacking faith in the story, has layered the film with false starts and innuendo, only to deny these tricks by the end of the film.