AFI European Union Film Showcase Review: ‘Frantz’

Review by Keith Watson

In his book “An Anthropologist on Mars,” the late neurologist Oliver Sacks tells the story of a painter who, as the result of a car accident, was rendered completely colorblind. This man, for whom color was so vitally important to both his work and his experience of the world, could now see reality only in black and white. He attempted to carry on painting, developing a numbering system that would allow him to keep working in his normally rich palette, but the results were unsuitable. Even this master of pigments couldn’t simply rely on his memory of color to carry him through. The world for him had been sapped of no small degree of its vitality. Perhaps the painter’s plight doesn’t seem quite so bad to cinephiles, many of whom have spent a decent chunk of their lives staring at black-and-white images, but, as Sacks points out, the inability to escape the monotony of the grayscale becomes oppressive—imagine staring out at a muddy, ashen sunset or biting into a dull gray orange.

I thought of this while watching French director François Ozon’s “Frantz,” which makes compelling use of shifts between black-and-white and color. While no one could accuse of Ozon’s images of being drab or ugly—the film is in fact richly photographed—there is nevertheless the sense of color having been drained from the screen. If black-and-white typically romanticizes, Ozon’s use of it suggests imprisonment in a drab, pallid reality, appropriate given the film’s milieu: post-WWI Germany, a land humbled by defeat and wracked with grief. The film’s few glimpses of color come as a breath of fresh air, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds on a miserably overcast day. Ozon uses color to suggest simpler times before the war as well as to heighten the story’s brief suggestions of happy times to come.

Ozon’s intriguing visual coding animates an otherwise muddled and disappointing film. The story is a seemingly classic post-war tale about a German woman, Anna (the lovely Paula Baer), still grieving over the death of her fiance Frantz, who finds herself becoming infatuated with a mysterious Frenchman named Adrien (a captivatingly jittery Pierre Niney) who shows up out of nowhere to lay flowers on her beloved’s grave. The narrative offers an interesting pretext to explore the difficult international mending process that comes in the wake of war, but Ozon’s observations about grief, wounded pride, and the responsibilities of the polity often feel obvious and even a bit shallow, simplistic enough to apply to almost any conflict while not quite sharp enough to qualify as universal truths.

Ozon seems much more interested in fashioning a sweeping romance out of this material than in digging into nuanced historical specifics. This would be all well and good except that Ozon doesn’t really nail the dramaturgy either. Working with fine actors, beautiful images, and an evocative story, “Frantz” would seem to have all the makings of a good old-fashioned period piece, the kind of film Max Ophuls would have nailed back in the ’40s. But unfortunately, there’s something ineffable missing. Ozon never quite establishes the stakes, never quite figures out his characters, never really finds the essence of his narrative. Part of the problem is the title character, the man around whom the drama revolves, is dead, and Ozon fails to evoke him, leaving a hole in the center of the story that remains unfilled.

In the end, “Frantz” is itself like a world without color: beautiful in its way but missing that essential component that brings everything to life.

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