“Don’t be afraid to make us happy.”
François Ozon’s Frantz is set in the aftermath of the First World War. It is a wonderfully visual film. (It won a César Award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for Best Cinematography. That may surprise some since most of the film is in black and white (but some of the best looking black and white you may see), with portions of the film shifting to color. There is a sense in which this reflects the moods of the film. The heavier black and white reflecting the post-war gloom, and the scenes with color representing a bit of a return to life and joy.
In a village in Germany, Anna (Paula Beer) mourns her fiancé Frantz who died in the trenches. She still lives with his parents who are also in deep mourning. One day she sees a man named Adrien (Pierre Niney) at Frantz’s grave. She discovers that he is French. He tells her that he was Frantz’s friend from before the war. They spent time together in Paris where Frantz studied.
Adrien faces opposition from the townsfolk who are still hurting from having lost the war. As one local put it, “Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer.” But the stories that Adrian shares with Anna and Frantz’s parents begin to bring joy into their lives yet again. It is almost as if Adrien is a substitute for their lost loved one. Perhaps Anna may even find a chance for love again.
The foundation of the story is the devastation that war brings. Everyone in this story suffers from the war. Anna and Frantz’s parents (and many of the townspeople) grieve the loss of the young men killed in the war. (This is a loss felt in France as well when the story moves there.) For the Germans in general, the loss of the war was a terrible blow to their national pride. Adrien has his own sense of pain that comes from the war that eats at his sense of self even though he was on the victorious side.
But at the half way point of the film there is an important revelation that puts everything into a new light. From that point on we begin to think of the lies that have been told, and the new lies yet to be told. In a world in which “alternate facts” seem to be acceptable to some, we may wonder if there might be a place for lies in the world or if only truth is to be considered valuable. When the truth comes out, it then becomes a question of if that truth should be shared or if the lies should be continued—perhaps even built upon—for the happiness of those who have found comfort in those lies.
Can happiness and peace be built upon a lie? Even Frantz’s grave, we learn, is a bit of a lie. His body is actually in a mass grave somewhere. But for his family, this little plot in the cemetery gives them a focus for their grief and a way to honor him.
When Anna discovers the truth about Adrien, she must decide whether to share that truth with Frantz’s parents. The “alternate” truth that Adrien represents has brought joy into Frantz’s family. Anna is placed in the position of knowing the truth, but knowing the consequences if that truth is known. Should she, for the sake of her family, withhold that truth and let the lie that has been spun continue. Should she make that lie even more elaborate in order to bring even more happiness to those who had found peace in the lie? And what is the burden on Anna of carrying the truth and the lie as she seeks to move on in her own life? It is easy to say that truth always is better than a lie. But is it?
Photos courtesy of Music Box Films