Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ozon’s Frantz

Adrien Rivoire and Frantz Hoffmeister were practically like the Crittenden siblings in the American Civil War. The two friends were as close as brothers, yet the Frenchman and German wound up on opposite sides of World War I. The former survived, but the latter did not. Yet, Rivoire’s unexpected presence becomes strangely comforting to Hoffmeister’s parents and his fiancée in François Ozon’s Frantz (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

She almost became Anna Hoffmeister, but she lives with her intended in-laws anyway, like a dutiful widow. She is rather surprised to spy a stranger leaving flowers at Frantz’s grave, especially when he turns out to be French. Oddly, she had never heard of her not quite husband’s close friend from Paris, but she is moved by his genuine grief. At first, Hoffmeister’s father is standoffish, but soon the entire family takes consolation from Rivoire’s fond remembrances.

Inevitably, Anna’s relationship with Rivoire becomes heavier and more emotionally complex. Yet, she also starts to suspect he harbors a secret, which he does, but the press notes duly entreats us not to reveal it.

Frantz is billed as a loose riff on Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby that also shares similarities with a certain Daniel Vigne film, but Ozon takes it in a completely different direction. Arguably, nothing works out according to our hopes and expectations at the midway point, yet there is an elegant perfection to its ultimate conclusion. Like the best films, Frantz satisfies while it surprises.

Although not exactly an unknown quantity, Paula Beer (a good German name if ever there was one) is a true revelation in Frantz. She convincingly portrays Anna’s lingering sorrow, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. It is a subtle but wide-ranging performance that touches on the full gamut of human feeling. Pierre Niney (one of the dueling Yves Saint Laurents) plays Rivoire with great sensitivity, as well as the conspicuous Frenchness the role demands, while Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber further reinforce the film’s elegiac sophistication as the dignified and grief-stricken Doktor and Magda Hoffmeister.

Ozon is an unusually prolific and generally reliable filmmaker, but Frantz represents one of his most assured works. It ranks with his masterful In the House, which was released four full years ago. It is also incredibly striking, thanks to Pascal Marti’s luminous black-and-white cinematography, which justly won this year’s César Award. Very highly recommended, Frantz opens tomorrow (3/15) in New York, at Film Forum.