Never trust the teller. Not if he is an intense-looking young man who has come from an enemy country to pay tribute to someone you loved. Not if he tends to faint when he plays the violin, comes from sophisticaded France to earnest, depressed Germany, or if he describes feelings you can’t really understand. Or if the teller is François Ozon.
Obviously, the romantic version of the past is always tempting. It promises us a certain utopia where ideals take precedence and it allows us not to have to look at reality too closely. A German family feels bereft after the death of promising young musician Frantz during the First World War. And Adrien, the intense visitor, claims he was a close friend. Reluctantly at first (Adrien is after all French and therefore the enemy) they admit him into their home, and he, like Sheherazade or the clever young man in Ozon’s Dans la maison, spins stories about Paris, about art and hopes, about closeness.
Adrien’s most devoted listener is Anna, who was Frantz’s fiancée and now lives with his parents. She had been resigning herself to life in the small town, maybe marrying one of the available bachelors scarred by war and small-mindedness. But Adrien wakes something in her that, one suspects, not even Frantz brought to her life. Call it romance, call it hope for a brighter future, call it Paris and Degas and the Louvre. Occasionally the film bursts into splashes of color, that suggest a mind opening in bloom, catching fantasies or finding it within. At first it’s as if Frantz’s ghost had returned. But soon we realize it’s something else. It’s not Frantz, it’s what Frantz meant for her.
It makes sense these people don’t recognize the queer undertones contemporary audiences may pick up in the friendship between Frantz and Adrien. This is, after all, 1919. The film is aware of how far it can go in suggesting this to the audiences but making friendship believable for the characters. It reminds us that each story has several meanings and no truth at all. And that fantasies overlap until we don’t know what we imagine and what has been imagined for us, the ghost and the lie.
Ever since his earliest films, Ozon is a committed stylist, always taking risks with tone, colour, composition. Frantz is among the most gorgeous films he has done: shot (largely) in the metallic black and white that reminded me of Hanecke’s The White Ribbon, set a decade or so before the events in the film. And like Hanecke in that film, Ozon shows serene, beautifully composed places only seldom allowing us glimpses of what they hide: pain, repression, violence, the temptation of suicide. Maybe, beautiful surfaces are never enough, and the truth is somehow something we find within us.
Ozon’s films tend to be borgian labyrinths, with competing versions, wrong turns and playful endings that leave you slightly uncertain about the future. In the end he convinces us that the stories characters tell themselves matter little, that there is another story. Anna finally understands she has been caught into a web of fantasies, but rather than acting dejected and continuing with her life, she does something sublime: try again. It was never, after all about Frantz and Adrien.
So strike that, trust the teller. Trust fiction to be fiction, to deal with emotions, to avoid the comforting, literalness, the feeling that we know where we are. Trust fiction to make you feel disoriented and slightly wiser. And when he is in good form, trust Ozon.