In a provincial German town, in the immediate aftermath of World War I, a lovely young woman (Paula Beer, perfect), deep in mourning for her fiancé, Frantz, killed in the trenches, encounters a well-dressed, melancholy French stranger at her beloved’s grave.
Director and writer François Ozon’s emotionally rich and visually luminous “Frantz” (his first period film, his first shot in black and white) grapples with profound sadness, the near-impossibility of happiness after the cataclysm (three million dead in Germany, two million in France). And explores the consequences of the lies these two unmoored young people, Anna and Adrien (Pierre Niney, also wonderful), tell themselves and others, in the attempt to restore some semblance of normal life. Call the subterfuge lies for living. (Ozon says about our era, “In a period obsessed with truth and transparency, I’ve been wanting to do a film about lies.”)
Anna, without family, lives with Frantz’s parents, Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner), the village doctor, and his nurturing wife Magda (Marie Gruber). Their days are subdued, as they try to make old routines fit again. They initially shun the young French visitor but he persists and the stories (flasbacks shot in elegant color) he tells of a close friendship (perhaps more?) with Frantz in Paris, where the Francophile lived and studied before the war, are somewhat restorative. Saying “Don’t be afraid to make us happy,” Magda encourages Adrien (a member of the Paris Opera orchestra) to play Frantz’s violin for the family.
Adrien and Anna walk in nature and reach a lake (Ozon references the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich), and their happiness grabs color into the frame. But their relief is fleeting, as Adrien tells Anna more about his relationship with Frantz. She prevents him from seeing Hoffmeister and Magda again and he returns to France.
Twice bereft, Anna attempts suicide, but is saved from drowning by a villager. She ignores Adrien’s letters, but after recovering from a period of depression, journeys (supported by Frantz’s parents) to Paris to find Adrien. When Anna eventually locates him at his family’s grand chateau, with his imperious mother and Fanny, his ostensibly friendly childhood friend, now fiancée, she finds her strength and is ready to try to move beyond the war, Frantz, Adrien and the lies.