DIRECTED BY: Francois Ozon
STARRING: Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
There should really be a medical term for the head-spinning, brink-teetering sense of giddiness felt by film critics when they spot a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The feeling hits you with rippling regularity during Frantz, the new romantic mystery from François Ozon – although Ozon being Ozon, every riff and tribute is upside down, back to front, and bilingual to boot.
Here the woman is in the James Stewart position at the apex of the love triangle, with her dead fiancé in one corner and a mysterious young man with some kind of connection to him in the other. It is every bit as handsome, teasing and therapeutically smart as we’ve come to expect from the prolific French director of Swimming Pool and Jeune & Jolie, although significantly less frisky than is standard.
Frantz’s Vertigo moments are so lovingly curated – there is even a pivotal scene in which the heroine quietly scours an art gallery for clues – that it comes as a surprise to learn in its closing credits that this film wasn’t initially prompted by Hitchcock at all (although his influence on the final film is undeniable).
Instead, it was “freely inspired” by a little-known 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film called Broken Lullaby – although the suspenseful, enigmatic restructuring of its plot is all Ozon’s doing, as is its entire second half, which folds back on the first as sharply and neatly as a fingernail-stiffened crease, and throws its revelations into Rorschach-print relief.
Frantz opens in Germany, 1919, in the picture-book town of Quedlinburg, where Anna (Paula Beer) is stoically carrying on with life while mourning her fiancé, who died in the First World War and after whom the film is named. Like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca – another Hitch the film gets regularly snagged on – Frantz is dead before the story even starts, but his presence haunts everyone involved in it, not least of all his parents, Doctor and Mrs Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber), with whom Anna now lives as the daughter-in-law they almost had.
Reports are circulating that a young Frenchman has been spotted laying flowers at Frantz’s grave. This is Adrien (Pierre Niney), who clearly has a good reason for being there, though when he’s first confronted by Anna in the churchyard, he keeps his cards clasped tight to his heart. Adrien is slender and birdlike, with a neat pencil moustache and a face that’s as easy to look at as it is hard to read: imagine a cross between Buster Keaton and David Hyde Pierce.
And his story – that he and Frantz were friends in Paris, where they played violin and contemplated Manets in the Louvre – works as a salve on the Hoffmeisters’ broken hearts. Ozon has shot the film in austere black and white, but whenever Frantz’s memory flares up the frame flushes with colour, like lightly reddening cheeks.
In the same way James Stewart in Vertigo groomed Kim Novak as a replacement for his lost love, Adrien starts to become a surrogate Frantz for Anna and the Hoffmeisters, while Philippe Rombi’s velvety, string-led score swells to Bernard Herrmann dimensions. He and Anna speak French together in private, just as she used to with Frantz – it was their “secret language”, she explains – and their chemistry is palpable, thanks to precise, captivating performances from Niney and Beer, who won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for emerging talent at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
The burning question – is Adrien telling the whole truth about himself and Frantz? – is actually answered at the film’s halfway point (which was the climax of the Lubitsch film), after which the plot’s trail of cake crumbs leads Anna to France, and us in circles. Possibilities rear up then recede, then present themselves again in adjusted forms, sometimes so subtly you wonder as you watch if Ozon even meant it (of course he did).
Even the tense interwar setting quietly leaves its mark on the story at hand, from the German townsfolk’s reservations over Adrien’s mere presence as a Frenchman and therefore recent enemy of the state, to a measured but implicative speech from Doctor Hoffmeister in the village pub about who bears responsibility for the death of his son and the many lost young souls like him. (The scene’s later mirror image features a rendition of La Marseillaise in a Paris cafe that reminds you of the savagery of that song’s familiar lyrics.)
Frantz is the work of a rascal, but a rascal in an unusually reflective frame of mind. Even with its mysteries solved, you can’t help but keep turning it over.
Robbie Collin - The Telegraph
THURSDAY 9 NOVEMBER 2017
Doors: 7.30pm Film 8pm
The Guardian - ★★★★
The Telegraph - ★★★★
The Independent - ★★★★
The Times - ★★★★