There is a tendency to write off costume dramas as inherently self-referential films, hardly capable of conveying a message that would speak to today’s audiences as much as it would have in times closer to the events it portrays. This is not the case of Frantz, François Ozon’s moving post-WWI tale which the French director presented at the 73rd edition of Venice Film Festival, a film whose timely pacifist message resonates across time and space.
Set against the backdrop of the devastation the first World War left Europe in, it tells the story of Anna (Paula Beer), a young German girl who lost her 23-year-old husband Frantz (Anton Von Lucke) on the French front and cannot let go of her past, at least until a supposed French friend of his, Adrien (Pierre Niney) shows up and the encounter will change her life forever.
We do not know just how close Adrien and Frantz were, and there are moments in which their relationship feels as though it could have been more than a beautiful friendship, but Frantz is a film that is so beautifully written that truths and lies are always inextricably wrapped up, so that every supposition we make gets refuted only minutes afterwards.
Frantz is a humane and delicate tale, centred upon the conflict between the older and younger generations, where the struggle between fathers and sons that makes for some of the most poignant and moving scenes. There is a memorable moment in which Frantz’s old father initially refuses to help Adrien due the grief the French people caused to his family, and eventually asks him to carry back to France his late son’s violin, and another heart-breaking scene in which the old man confronts a group of German nationalists reminding everyone it was the older generation who sent the young to die, and now drinks to the death of their own children.
Ozon chooses to shoot post-WWI Europe in black and white, and it is only during Adrien’s flashbacks or the rare times he will be playing the violin for Frantz’s family that colours fill the screen and the film magically brightens up, as though forerunning the promise of a better future, which never truly shows up. For war destroys cities, corrupts souls and fuels hatred, and Ozon portrays the physical and spiritual devastation of WWI turning Europe into a colourless wasteland.
In a time when the integrity of the Europe we know is under the threat of constant crises, Frantz’s message is a timely reminder of war’s de-humanising character, and a brilliant testament of the ways in which costume dramas can say so much about our present as they do about the past they portray.