The black-and-white cinematography of François Ozon’s Frantz is gorgeous yet oddly un-evocative, abounding in compositions that are clean, pristine, and unencumbered by the spontaneous emotional textures that draw many of us to cinema. Shadows loom over the nooks and crannies of the images with a carefulness that dispels true tension; certain flourishes are neat rather than poetic. When Anna (Paula Beer) wanders a graveyard to visit her dead fiancé, Frantz (played in flashbacks by Anton von Lucke), we’re aware of the pearly white glistening of the crosses sticking out of the ground of the surrounding graves, and the painterly arrangement of the various elements of the frame, but the scene is flat, both dramatically and visually, and so is the entire film.
The actors competently deliver their lines and hit their marks, but there’s no sense in this narrative of neurosis being tapped and exorcised. Frantz suggests an animate coffee-table book in its fetishizing of orderly taste. And this is a problem for a post-war melodrama concerned with survivor’s guilt and free-floating cultural resentment and sin, as these subjects demand obsessiveness on the part of the filmmakers and cast—a willingness to take emotional and tonal risks, to tunnel deep into the characters’ afflictions.
Frantz is predominantly set in Quedlinburg, Germany in 1919, not long after the end of the First World War, in which Frantz served as a German soldier and lost his life. Anna lives in a perpetual state of mourning with Frantz’s parents, Dr. Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and his wife, Magda (Marie Gruber), routinely visiting Frantz’s grave, which we learn contains no actual body, as the particulars of his death are impossible to sort out among a battlefield riddled with carnage. Anna sees a Frenchman paying his respects to Frantz’s grave, which is notable given the great bitterness and hostility existing between France and Germany after the war. Anna meets this man, who reveals himself to be Adrien (Pierre Niney), who fought in the war for France and claims to have inexplicably forged a friendship with Frantz.
Ozon isn’t a consistent director, but he’s shown in past films a sexual playfulness and empathy, the latter particularly reserved for women with hungers that they can’t quite digest intellectually. In Frantz, Ozon appears to be aiming for a classically existential tone of erotic mourning, in which the demons of the setting figuratively bubble up in the background of the compositions, uncommented on by characters who’re trapped in stifling patterns of etiquette and tradition. The film’s aesthetic occasionally reminds one of The White Ribbon, another slow, self-conscious black-and-white film about buried atrocity. Michael Haneke’s film had a flat, presentational, ineffably modern texture too, but it served a ghoulishly ironic purpose, establishing that what you see is most certainly not what you get.
Frantz, a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, is basically just another remarkably unsurprising film about a woman not fucking a forbidden man. Ozon’s pacing is so humorless and funereal that it squelches the possibility of heat or conflict arising between Anna and Adrien, who scan as photogenic mannequins for Ozon’s studiously forgettable tableaus. The Hoffmeisters have a few lovely, poignant moments, but they’re relegated to the sidelines as the protagonists sleepwalk toward a safe, inevitable conclusion.