François Ozon is nothing if not audacious. His latest and tenth film in as many years, Frantz – a loose remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby – borrows the lush melodrama of its source material whilst injecting a Hitchcockian-like playfulness, erring ever closer to the frantic sensationalism of Vertigo before the rug is gently pulled from under us. Less a twist, more a hushed whisper of a reveal.
Much like Ozon himself, it moves from woozy romanticism to quietly twisting with a regal composure. Shot for the most part in lavish monochrome-flashbacks come in the form of bright pockets of colour-and delicately paced, it’s one of Ozon’s most thrilling pieces of work. Where Lubitsch’s original placed focus on the male gaze, Ozon intelligently moves focus onto Anna-played beautifully by Paula Beer-the “widowed” fiancé of the titular Frantz, who departs long before the opening credits. It’s 1919 in picturesque Quedlinburg and Anna still mourns, a tragic figure defined by her loss.
When rumours begin to swirl of a Frenchman laying flowers on the grave of Frantz, Anna decides to confront him. He reveals himself to be Adrien (Pierre Nenay), an old friend with whom the two shared a close friendship whilst living in Paris. His stories of Frantz, their shared love of the violin, fingers the heartstrings of Anna’s parents-in-law Doctor and Mrs Hoffmeister (a fantastic Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber) who decide to bring him in as a surrogate for their recently deceased son. As to whether Adrien speaks the truth is answered relatively early on-Lubitsch held out until the end-but this allows for a superior second half where Anna travels to Paris in search of something more. Yet the film never hinges on the reveal, once the truth comes to the surface, the film keeps manages to maintain composure. There’s no grandiose moment of emotional outpour, like the film around it, it’s poised and unflappable.
Flashbacks to Frantz and Adrien’s burgeoning friendship are told in vivid colour, each frame seemingly painted by hand. They bring life to Pierre Neney’s thin frame, his whispery moustache suddenly bold, his cheeks now brazen and red. Where they may jar at times-they rather dominate proceedings-Ozon finds an inventive way to bring new life to a story told many times before. In using dreamlike colour, he finds a way of masking truth without relying on nail-on-the-head exposition.
There’s a palpable chemistry between Adrien and Anna that practically shivers with tragic fragility. Whilst alone, the two speak French as if a secret language and a final flourish late on brings to mind the grand opulence of Douglas Sirk. It’s less in your face than James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo-with which the film is deeply indebted-instead, there’s a subtle warmth to it, neither hope to hurt and all the better for it.
With a filmmaker so prolific as Ozon, there’s certain joy in Frantz quiet brilliance. There’s been a relative lightness to his more recent output, films enjoyable but as light as candyfloss. This isn’t to say Frantz is heavy going, far from it. Ozon’s touch is as light as a cigarette paper, the grandiose themes only ever acting as a slight undercurrent for which to carry the moving tenderness of Adrien and Anna.
Frantz is at once opulent, at once delicate. It’s a mature, composed, dizzyingly romantic slice of melodrama.
Frantz is out in selected UK cinemas now.