Shadows and Light

Lulu RasorOctober 20, 2017Unity and DivisionMedia

Frantz is not your average war story.

There is no desperate underdog story of victory, no gore, no sweeping shots of flaming battlefields and bloody soldiers, as its PG-13 rating conveys. The 2016 movie, directed by François Ozon, is instead a quiet story of aftermath and how people are left to pick up the pieces of their lives after devastation shatters them.

Anna is a young woman living in Quedlinburg, Germany in 1919, her world still overshadowed by World War I. After the wartime death of her fiancé, Frantz, she has seemingly resigned herself to being a widow without even having married. She remains trapped in the past and living for a dead man, despite encouragement from Frantz’s parents, Hans and Magda, to move on.

However, her melancholy routine is interrupted by the appearance of a stranger at Frantz’s grave. He is Adrien, a French soldier who claims to know Frantz from their time together in Paris before the war. For a while, his stories about Frantz — their shared pacifism and interest in the violin, visits to the Louvre, and nights out dancing — soothe Anna, Hans, and Magda. However, simmering anti-French sentiment, Anna’s stifling not-life, and the increasingly ambiguous nature of Frantz and Adrien’s relationship soon combine into something far more complicated than a simple story of closure.

The memory of World War I permeates almost every scene in Frantz. Both France and Germany are unwilling to forget their animosity: Anna’s visit to France begins with harsh, skeptical questioning about her real reason for coming, just moments before she witnesses the bombed-out shells of houses first-hand. Unlike Paris, Quedlinburg seemingly bears no physical scars, but the still-raw memory of the war keeps anti-French attitudes alive and well. It’s there in obvious ways, such as meetings of hot-headed men discussing retaliation against the military defeat and Hans’s initial refusal to meet with Adrien because “Every French man is my son’s murderer.” It is also present in more insidious ways, such as a store owner’s confiding in Anna that her new dress is Parisian-made, but advising her to keep that a secret. It’s into this hotbed of simmering anger that Adrien arrives — not only a Frenchman, but a soldier, and one with unclear reasons for his journey to Quedlinburg.

And yet, despite these cultural conflicts, Anna and Adrien manage to find common ground and even friendship, like two hands reaching out to clasp together across an endless gulf. They are both haunted by the war and, more importantly, by Frantz, and their grief brings them together in a way that transcends nationality and offers both some peace. While the coloring of the movie is generally somber — most scenes are in black and white, to highlight both the tone and the historical setting — color emerges while Adrien tells his stories and explores the countryside with Anna.

The greatest strength of Frantz is its focus on the characters, Anna in particular. While the damage of World War I is apparent throughout, physical destruction is seen only once, reflected in the window of a train as Anna arrives in Paris. Instead, the focus is the emotional aftermath of a war and those left behind to deal with it.

Anna lives like a ghost in her own life, trapped by the memory of Frantz and the future they could have had together. In a city where children play in the market square and the scars of war are healing — albeit slowly — she’s a dark specter still dressed in mourning black who turns down marriage proposals and drops her studies because she lacks heart. She’s unable to move on and forget her dead fiancé, living more for him and his parents than for herself, but Adrien’s arrival and place as a sort of surrogate son lifts some of that burden.

Adrien, too, is not without his own conflicts. A pacifist who was forced into war, he is obviously haunted by the things he did and saw, keeping the horror close to his heart. Though he was a talented violinist before he was thrust into the violence, he now finds it impossible to play. While his reasons for visiting are initially unclear, it becomes clear that Frantz and anguish over his wartime actions are a major reasons.

Unfortunately, the focus on characters was also the movie’s downfall at times. With a minimal soundtrack and black-and-white coloring, the movie dragged at times with nothing to distract me. Adrien and Anna revealed their traumas slowly and realistically, unfurling the past bit by bit, but sometimes I became bored with the way information was obviously being dangled over the head of the viewer and wanted to sprint ahead to see the fallout of these details. The use of black and white coloring also seemed frustratingly obvious — dreams, flashbacks, and moments of lightheartedness between Anna and Adrien were in color, while many sorrowful scenes were gray.

Thankfully, when the movie finally got going, it became truly engaging and I found myself less bored by all the subtle implications of past and pain. The lies and loves of the characters became increasingly tangled and unpredictable as Anna and Adrien began to break under the weight of everything they’ve kept inside, but the movie still managed to remain low-key, with moments of distress and remembered violence never feeling dramaticized or unrealistic.

Overall, I give Frantz 3 and a half stars. Sometimes the muted feeling and slow pace of the movie worked to its advantage in showing a slow story of working through grief and the aftermath of violence, but other times it downplayed moments that should have been more substantial and made me feel disconnected or bored. However, Anna’s journey of beginning to live again, Adrien’s story of working through repressed torment, and the obstacles they encountered within and without made it an emotionally compelling story unlike any other war film I’ve seen.

Lulu Rasor is a 15-year-old lean, mean book-reading machine from Yarmouth, Maine. When not reading or learning strange facts about history and science, she enjoys swimming, writing, and talking about herself in the third person.