French director François Ozon is best known on this side of the Atlantic for his kinky 2003 thriller Swimming Pool. But his career provides a dazzling sampler of various movie genres (wrenching melodramas, twisty murder mysteries, and so-called women’s pictures—occasionally all three in the same film). He’s got an especially strong talent for showcasing rich performances from his female leads. His latest import, Frantz, is no exception. You’ll want to check it out for a whole host of reasons, but the biggest one is to watch the 22-year-old German actress Paula Beer. Her luminous eyes and expressive face provide a constantly shifting map of grief, hope, and longing. She’s a real discovery.
Frantz is set in Germany in 1919, shortly after the country’s defeat in World War I. The people of the small town of Quedlinburg are still reeling, mourning the loss of a generation of young men who never returned from the front. Beer’s Anna was engaged to one of them, a sensitive musician named Frantz. She now lives with his parents, Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber). It feels like the three of them are still sharing their home with a ghost. Then, one day, another spectral figure appears standing over Frantz’s grave. His name is Adrien (Yves Saint Laurent’s Pierre Niney), a reedy Frenchman with a wispy mustache who finds himself in a town that’s less than hospitable to French visitors. He looks like he stumbled out of the pages of a Proust novel. Why is there and what’s his connection to Frantz?
Adrien claims to have been friends with Frantz before the war pitted their countries against one another. But it’s obvious that there’s more to the story. We prepare ourselves for a shocking, tablecloth-yanking revelation—something like he was Frantz’s lover. But Ozon’s secret is both less shocking than that and more powerful. Anna and Frantz’s parents are initially opposed to Adrien’s presence, but their hunger for any anecdotes or details about their dead son eventually wins out, and Adrien is welcomed into their home—an unlikely guest. Anna warms the most, and we’re not sure if she’s falling for the handsome stranger or because she wants to hold on to any lifeline connecting her to Frantz.
To say any more would risk breaking the hushed spell that Ozon’s film casts. But it is the most restrained film he’s made in a while. Shot in black and white, the movie occasionally blossoms into color at moments that make perfect sense, when monochromatic mourning is replaced by something like hope. Every one in the film, down to the smallest characters on the fringes, is keeping secrets and spinning lies. And those lies beget more lies and more until the truth is a distant memory. It’s what can happen when life feels too overwhelming and unbearable to face. A–