In Frantz, the new film from French director Francois Ozon which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, the young German actress Paula Beer plays Anna, a woman whose fiance died on the front lines at the tail end of WWI. Without a family of her own, she has taken up residence with her fiance's parents, Hans (Ernst Stotzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber) Hoffmeister, in the northern German town of Quedlinburg. She seems to do little but tend to the gravesite of her beloved Frantz, a plot which is only symbolic, as his body never returned from the war. Anna's grief is echoed and enhanced on screen by black-and-white photography and a keening piano-and-violin score. Anna's face, though it seldom emotes at first, is mournful in its restraint.
The plot of this gorgeous and morally vexing film revolves around a mysterious French soldier named Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney). Anna sees him leaving flowers on Frantz' grave one day, and he soon introduces himself to Herr Hoffmeister, who turns him away. (Franco-German relations were chilly in 1919.) But it's clear that this timid, mustachioed young man has information. Something about Frantz? Indeed. It turns out that Adrien and Frantz were dear friends in Paris, before the war. Despite initial misgivings, Hans and Magda grow fond of him, and are drawn to stories about their only child. Anna, too, comes to see in Adrien some of the same qualities she loved in Frantz.
But as in prior Ozon films, all is not what it seems. Lies are told, stories concocted. You begin to suspect (though you may have from the beginning) that Adrien and Frantz were, shall we say, more than just friends. It seems for a moment that even the staid and old-school Hans intuits a deeper connection. But there is more lurking beneath Adrien's stories, and poor Anna, who seems to overcome one tragedy just in time to greet a new one, must decide to advance or reveal certain fictions. Ozon confounds your first and second guesses throughout the film.
With its occasional bursts of color — to signify moments of happiness before the war, or fleeting happiness after — and its simple, sometimes embarrassingly sentimental dialogue (the script is adapted from a short story written in 1932) Frantz, to its credit, feels like a movie from a bygone era.
It takes place, for the most part, in 1919, and is a constant reminder of just how romantic romance used to be. When one must communicate by letter — when one must travel by train to deliver a message, to seek forgiveness, to profess love — encounters are freighted with so much more: more anticipation, deeper longing, greater loss.
Speaking of which, without spoiling too much, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite scene, which is one of the best of the year and includes perhaps the loveliest kiss I've ever seen captured on screen. It's very late in the film, and Anna, torn to emotional shreds by multiple parties, receives an inadvertently insulting sendoff before boarding a French train back to Germany. She sheds a tear as a hug from Adrien becomes, after a pause, a kiss. And Adrien, suddenly, begins to understand a dynamic between them that Anna has long come to terms with. There is no score to accompany this storm of emotion, no orchestra to dramatize Adrien's eyes as he looks at this woman who has traveled so far to see him. There is only the final whistle of the train. "Anna," he says, in shock. "It's too late," Anna replies. It's a pearl of a scene, performed to perfection by Niney and Beer and serves as an incredible, if quiet, payoff to a film chock-full of sadness and romance and mystery. It's what you go to the movies for.