Wednesday 10 May 2017

Slippery people: "Frantz"

Frantz finds the French writer-director François Ozon once more confounding anybody looking for a consistent thread running through his work. The director of the musical 8 Women and backwards break-up drama 5x2 has now fashioned an absorbing period film, set in the years between the two World Wars, which fades between colour and black-and-white at irregular intervals, as though we weren't already being kept on our toes. If there is a connection with Ozon's earlier output, beyond an obvious penchant for elegantly spun storytelling, it may be no more or less than an abiding fascination with the mystery of human relations - and those curious events, big and small, which conspire to bring disparate people together - although there's an aspect of self-reflexivity that becomes more prominent as this tale gets told.

For starters, though, we're watching a young German war widow, Anna (Paula Beer), being pulled out of her state of grief by the handsome Frenchman who's been spotted laying flowers on her husband's grave. The Frenchman, one Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), has stories to tell about the late Frantz and the unlikely camaraderie that developed between the two, stories that can only return smiles to the faces of Anna and her similarly bereaved in-laws (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber). Yet as hinted by one early shot - of Adrien looking into his hotel mirror and seeing Frantz reflected back at him - all is not quite as it initially appears. 

As with Ozon's Sitcom and In the House, this will prove to be the story of an outsider figure who enters a comfortable household and begins to stir up trouble of some kind; although the new film, as befits Ozon's status as a recently appointed festival darling, operates on an altogether grander scale than its predecessors. Adrien comes to create unrest not just within this one family, but between the family and the still-grieving local community, bitterly opposed as it is to the notion of any Frenchman crossing the border to lay claim on German territory. Our sympathies are thus soon being shifted around with consummate skill; it's abundantly clear that Ozon means this time to arrive at more than mere provocation.

That much is embedded in the very look of the film. In the first decade of this century, Ozon gave the impression of a filmmaker predominantly concerned by form: the challenge for him was to make a musical or a movie in reverse, and to leave all the emotional heavy lifting to his performers. As his technique has refined, however, he would seem to have allowed for the possibility that form need not necessarily be an end in itself, but a means to heightened expression. The colour in Frantz looks to represent happiness, an escape from drab black-and-white normality. (Ozon may not be the first filmmaker to have been heavily influenced by The Wizard of Oz.) 

It's touching to see the film's palette expanding during a carefree afternoon in the sun, or while the family watch their guest playing a song on the family violin - it corresponds to the way the colour returns to the bereft Anna's cheeks - and very moving when it quickly fades away after Adrien collapses. Increasingly, though, even this starts to seem like an unreliable barometer: the characters' actions set us to wondering how much this colour is meant to represent sincere emotional warmth, and how much it's been applied to pretty up an otherwise grim and unsparing picture.

For it transpires that Adrien is but a gifted storyteller, one whose presence within the film allows Ozon to ruminate, not for the first time, on why we tell the stories we do. For consolation or self-aggrandisement? To protect others, or simply ourselves? The second half, in which Anna picks up the loose ends of Adrien's story, suggests such fictions may just be as infectious and unavoidable as the seasonal colds Frantz's father, the town's doctor, has to deal with: germs of ideas we catch from others and pass on to others still. After a while, everybody on screen gets the bug.

In truth, the contemporary In the House provided a sparkier, funnier riff on this line of thought, though the risk that Frantz might have merely seemed academic has been fended off by precise casting all the way down, which helps to make this small town (with its sometimes very small attitudes) come alive. Beer makes for a sensible, sceptical heroine, with a touch of Bérénice Bejo in her eyes and thoughtful demeanour - the very opposite of an obvious mythomane, which makes Anna's behaviour through the second half yet more intriguing. Niney, by contrast, undercuts his wiry good looks with the nerviness of a man who wants to be elsewhere, or a twig in the wind - we really don't know whether to trust him, or throw him as far as we can.

Anna and Adrien's story could conceivably be sold as a love story - or at least a story about the stories we tell to those that we love - and I suspect this may lead some to accuse Ozon of going soft with age, as perhaps all sometime enfants terribles surely must. Yet the storytelling in Frantz is finally far less consoling than it might have been; it's certainly far less complacent than the self-reflexivity of a period film like Their Finest, say, and may be less so than it was even in In the House, where compulsive yarnspinning eventually drove one character to destitution and madness.

Watch Anna, in that second half, sitting conflicted in a Parisian bar whose patrons greet the entrance of a trio of servicemen with a would-be rousing version of La Marseillaise ("Let an impure blood/Water the furrows of our fields"), temporarily forgetting the sacrifices made and losses incurred. Here is the antiestablishment Ozon of yore, skewering in a minute or so of screen time the kind of mythmaking that feeds into nationalism and sends young men off to the trenches in pursuit of some unattainable glory. Who lied to them? Or in other words: how deadly can a story be?

Frantz opens in selected cinemas from Friday.   

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