Film: Love, lies and trauma in the aftermath of war

Stranger danger: Anna (Paula Beer) and Adrien (Pierre Niney)

It seems only yesterday that we were commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Three years on, and it is now the terrible last stages of the conflict that we are invited to look back to, as we contemplate the sometimes permanent psychological damage inflicted on the survivors and their families.

François Ozon’s new film Frantz (cert 15, 114 mins,★★★★) is set in an old German town soon after the Armistice. Dr Hoffmeister’s son Frantz has been killed in the trenches, and every day Anna (Paula Beer), the boy’s fiancée, patiently walks to the cemetery in order to water the flowers on her beloved’s empty tomb.

One day she meets a stranger there. This handsome young man turns out to be Adrien (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman, who before the war was Frantz’s best friend and bohemian companion back in Paris. At least this is what he claims. And his anecdotes, “niceness” and general demeanour seem to give Anna no reason to doubt this.

Slowly and irresistibly, over the course of some weeks, she falls in love with him. And Hoffmeister and his wife, too, after initial misgivings (anti-French feeling is still very strong in these parts) welcome the young man into the bosom of their household. Through him, their son’s spirit comes alive again. Perhaps – with Frantz’s posthumous blessing – he will prove to be a suitable future husband for Anna.

Ozon’s film takes as its starting point an old pre-war Hollywood film called Broken Lullaby made by the great German émigré director Ernst Lubitsch, but this new version is not a mere remake. As readers of my summary will have guessed, there is a secret waiting to be revealed: the circumstances surrounding Adrien’s acquaintance with Frantz are not at all what he has sketched them to be. Ozon’s main interest seems to be in the dilemmas involved. What if a lie (planted, even, with the best intentions) is never “overcomeable”? How can we ever learn to trust each other?

The movie is handsome to look at – its predominant black and white widescreen photography (by Pascal Marti) interspersed every so often with lyrical glowing sequences in colour. Its rhythm is the rhythm of art-house films everywhere – a little slow, perhaps, by conventional standards, but then the pace of life probably was more gentle a hundred years ago.

Costumes, décor and general atmosphere are (as one would expect from this director) of the highest quality. It is lovely to hear French and German spoken in the same film. The sage beauty of Beer playing Anna (the actress is only 20 years old) contrasts intriguingly with – perhaps one should say properly complements – the neurotic sensitivity of Niney’s Frenchman.

The supporting roles (Ernst Stützner as Dr Hoffmeister and Marie Gruber as his gentle wife Magda) are exceptionally well acted, too.