Screwball comedy master Ernst Lubitsch took a rare stab at straight drama with 1932’s “Broken Lullaby,” the tense story of a soldier who attempts to make amends with the family of a man he killed in World War I. Preeminent French director François Ozon also wanders into unconventional territory with “Frantz,” his astonishingly beautiful and inquisitive remake of Lubitsch’s film, using it as a springboard for a profound look at alienation and grief.
Ozon captures much of the original movie’s strengths while broadening its themes, launching into richer territory with his most polished storytelling achievement since 2004’s “Swimming Pool.” While the entirety of “Frantz” holds less appeal than its gorgeous ingredients, it’s impossible to deny the sheer narrative sophistication that makes this gentle story much more than your average retread.
Largely set in the small German mountain town of Quedlingburg, the mostly black-and-white “Frantz” takes place in 1919, where a young woman named Anna (stellar newcomer Paula Beer) quietly mourns her late fiancé of the title, who died on the battlefield. Holed up with his equally downtrodden parents (Ernst Stotzner and Marie Gruber), Paula spends most of her time fending off advances from another local man and visiting Frantz’s grave site. It’s here that she comes across the mysterious Adrien (Pierre Niney, “Yves Saint Laurent”), who claims to be Frantz’s longtime friend from Paris, even though neither Anna or Frantz’s parents have heard of him. Initially dubious of Adrien — and of the French in general — Frantz’s relatives eventually accept Adrien as the only living connection to the late young man and develop a relationship forged in their mutual bereavement.
But Adrien’s not providing the whole story about his relationship to Frantz, a twist that anyone familiar with the source material already knows, and Ozon doesn’t mess with it. Instead, he uses a revelation and confrontation between Adrien and Anna, who has begun to develop feelings for him, to launch the narrative into a fascinating third act in which she takes control of the situation. Shielding her parents from the truth, Anna launches on a multi-city odyssey to learn more about Adrien and confront her own need to move on with her life.
These developments unfold in fairly straightforward terms, but they’re elevated by a quartet of stunning performances and the haunting, evocative world that slowly comes alive around them. Beer is a revelation as Anna, an introverted woman who steadily develops the confidence to come out of her shell; the spindly, leering Niney is a natural fit for a man with dubious intentions for much of the running time. While Gruber gives Anna’s mother-in-law a palpable tenderness, it’s Stotzner, as Frantz’s stone-faced father, who defines the lingering postwar tensions between French and Germany for which the movie serves as a single, prolonged metaphor.
And it would be a blunt one, if Ozon didn’t give every scene such a lovely polish. While the lyrical black-and-white scenery gives many scenes a heightened solitude, the greyscale often fades to color during more uplifting moments when the characters find an escape from their deep funk. This happens most significantly when Adrien and Anna perform a musical duet that complicates their developing bond in ways that words fail to capture. It’s a somewhat obvious device, but just delicate enough to hit the mark.
Nevertheless, the movie’s chief power comes from Anna’s individualistic attitude as she builds on her drab scenario to find a better way forward. A secular compliment to 2013’s Polish drama “Ida,” which also used sleek black-and-white to tell the story of postwar trauma, “Frantz” effectively touches on what it means to live in the shadow of a dark past while adapting to the present. But the movie also contains echoes of Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” as both movies revolve around false identities and the challenges involved in confronting a broken world. Rather than a high stakes thriller, “Frantz” is a melancholic, soul-searching portrait of different characters united by shared sense of dislocation.
It’s also an occasionally profound romance, a kind of period-specific “Before Sunrise” that finds its two would-be lovers wandering the spectacular hillsides and art museums while discussing the cathartic power of painting and music. Culminating in the halls of the Louvre, “Frantz” manages to feel both old fashioned and progressive in its inquisitive approach to exploring old demons with an open mind.
Ultimately, the movie follows such a winding plot that not every detail holds together, and certain tantalizing possibilities about Adrien’s past are left underdeveloped. Anna’s quest builds to an emotional finale, and yet the story concludes with the lingering impression of grander possibilities that never quite take shape.
But it’s quite the journey getting there, and as it keeps developing, Ozon proves he’s in tight control of the material. The filmmaker has toyed with many genres over the years and worked on virtually every scale except for blockbusters, but “Frantz” reduces his skill to a keen eye for subtle interactions and the deeper meanings that go unspoken. Recent films such as the teen prostitute drama “Young & Beautiful” and the twisty marital thriller “The New Girlfriend” demonstrated this skill in less cohesive narratives; “Frantz” distills it into an elegant package. Ozon may lack the so-called Lubitsch touch, but “Frantz” is a reminder that the French auteur has a firm one of his own.