Monday, April 10, 2017

On the Big Screen: FRANTZ (2016)

The U.S. marks the centennial of its entry into World War I this month. Hollywood will mark the occasion later this year with the release of Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, but Francois Ozon had a centennial present ready in advance. The arrival here of Frantz closes a circle, for the film is a French remake of a Hollywood movie (by a German director, Ernst Lubitsch) based on a French play, The Man I Killed. Lubitsch's dubiously retitled Broken Lullaby is a Pre-Code film I haven't yet seen, but after reading a synopsis I see that Ozon's screenplay, co-written with Philippe Piazzo, proposes an alternate ending to the original story, presumably with the idea of undermining whatever message of reconciliation Lubitsch or the original authors intended to send.

The setting is the German town of Qudelinburg, where in 1919, with the war freshly over, Anna (Paula Beer) mourns her fiance Frantz, who was KIA in September 1918, two months before the Armistice, with his parents, who have taken her in as a virtual daughter. One dreary day in this black and white world she finds that some stranger has placed flowers on Frantz's grave. The groundskeeper explains with a contemptuous spit that the stranger is a Frenchman. This proves to be Adrien (Pierre Niney), who gets a hostile response from the defeated Deutschers, among whom revanchist sentiment already stirs. Frantz's dad, a doctor (Ernst Stötzner), wants nothing to do with Adrien until the Frenchman reveals that he was no mere poilu but Frantz's best friend in Paris, where the young German studied art until called to war. His flashbacks to happy pre-war days are in color (Pascal Marti's tricky cinematography won last year's Cesar) and his repentant earnestness colors Anna' drab world a little. Improbably, Anna finds herself falling for the Frenchman, but before things can go too far Adrien makes a terrible confession: all his stories of friendship with Frantz were lies. In fact, Frantz was someone Adrien had encountered randomly and killed in a trench. The fact that the German had not tried to defend himself -- the letters he carried on him betrayed pacifist sentiments -- gave Adrien a case of guilty conscience that he hoped to cure by making a pilgrimage to Frantz's home and family.

In Broken Lullaby, the German girl convinces the French boy to keep up the noble lie, and he remains in Germany to fill the hole in the bereaved family. In Frantz, Adrien returns home after asking Anna to tell Frantz's parents the truth. Now it is Anna who tells a noble lie by refusing to tell the old folks the true story, telling them instead that Adrien was called home on family business. After a thwarted suicide attempt, she decides to go to France -- I'm sure that the homonymity of Frantz and France is no accident -- and reunite with the Frenchman. She has few clues to work with, but at least she's as fluent in French as Adrien was in German, and after a brief tease of Adrien's suicide she finds him in his country home -- with a woman who is either his wife or fiancee. She heads for home the next day, but not before making another stop at the Louvre to look at Edouard Manet's The Suicide, the sight of which, she says cryptically, makes her want to live.

If Frantz is a remake of Broken Lullaby it also has a little Vertigo in its DNA, from its motifs of imposture and suicide to its near-obsessive attention to a painting in a museum to some Hermannesque hints in Philippe Rombi's score. It may be that Vertigo, less that film's extreme fatalism, is what you get once you strip Broken Lullaby of its fairy-tale romanticism. It may be that Frantz is telling us that there can't be the sort of imposture Adrien indulges in without betrayal and bitterness. Whatever his good intentions, Adrien's mission inevitably has a self-indulgent, self-serving aspect that can't help but leave Anna feeling, as I presume she does ultimately, exploited and abused. Maybe I'm reading my knowledge of events to come into Ozon's ending, but I can't help thinking that what really keeps Anna going after the end is the thought of revenge, a hint of the revenge Germans probably hoped already to take on France. Ozon's thought may have been that Broken Lullaby needed a do-over that reflects the history to come of which Lubitsch and his writers were innocent. Perhaps a more faithful remake could be set after World War II, since reconciliation did seem to come then, nationalist stirrings in 2017 France notwithstanding. In any event, Frantz is a grim, fascinating bit of cinematic revisionism with the sort of ambiguous ending designed to keep people talking well after they leave the theater. From what I've read about Broken Lullaby, I doubt whether it provoked much discussion, so in that respect, at least, Frantz is a rare remake that improves on the original. It's up to each movie fan, of course, to decide which sort of story he or she would rather see.

1 comment:

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