Sensual encounters and whispered lines, a damning social reality in existentialist black and white, café conversations, and maybe a suicide or two. These are the oft-parodied stereotypes of the European art film, and the new movie from festival regular François Ozon hits all the old notes. “Frantz” walks and talks like arthouse cinema, and it could be placed in competition at any major film festival without anyone batting an eye (the film screened at Venice). But its adherence to the overly serious formulas of European film can only end in self-parody.
“Frantz” opens with a corpse and a stranger. World War I has just concluded, and German casualty Frantz (Anton Von Lucke) has been interned to the mourning of his parents (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber) and fiancé (Paula Beer), but a new figure is seen in the dim streets of Quedlinburg, Germany, placing flowers on the fresh grave. The atmosphere is reminiscent of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s English films about another unsettling arrival, the serial killer narrative “The Lodger”, but “Frantz” is no story of London fog—everything here is plain as day. The largely unambiguous narrative receives its only gloss of the uncanny by way of a moody string leitmotif, an empty sign to let the audience know there is mystery afoot.
And the mystery element is arguably the film’s selling point compared to its treatment of sex. While there is no onscreen depiction of physical love, the erotic tension in flashbacks between Frantz and the stranger, French soldier Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), is the main site of self-parody in the movie. One particular violin lesson where Adrien deftly touches Frantz’s bow-arm from behind is only so far removed from the infamous pottery wheel scene from “Ghost” where Patrick Swayze straddles Demi Moore as they rhythmically shape the clay. From continent to continent, the idea of the erotic as a classed-up, artsy form of sex continues to be humorously misguided.
To avoid the awkward self-parody of the film’s over-the-top seriousness, it might have helped Ozon to make a full turn into comedy. Based on Ernst Lubitsch’s drama “Broken Lullaby”, “Frantz” is ironically in greatest need of the laughs found in the Lubitsch comedies of manners for which he is best known. The World War II Lubitsch film “To Be or Not to Be” surrounding a theater troupe resisting the Nazis in Poland, was a comedy of ongoing trauma, daring to make jokes during the Holocaust and proving all the more emotionally devastating for not avoiding near history. In comparison, the nearly century-wide gap between World War I and “Frantz” renders this bland narrative of Franco-German catharsis even less relatable in the modern age.
A portrait of two cultures that does a disservice to both, “Frantz” depicts France and Germany as one-dimensionally as it does post-war history. The French drink wine, the Germans drink beer. The French have the Louvre, the Germans have a folksy, seasonal festival. Despite the attention to lighting and costume, which are often the strong points of Ozon’s work, the period piece fails to flesh out its chosen time. Compared to true masters like Lubitsch, what Ozon lacks is the ability to create and populate a world, instead of describing it with bland clichés.
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