It’s a bold director who decides to remake an Ernst Lubitsch film, but François Ozon’s choice of “Broken Lullaby,” one of the master’s least known works and a drama to boot, probably seemed like a safe bet. This is the tale of a young Frenchman just after WWI, traveling to Germany to meet the parents and fiancée of a fallen soldier whom he says he knew in Paris, and it offers considerable emotional scope for Ozon’s pet themes, including the bounds of friendship and the idea of women coming into their own. Taken on these terms, “Frantz” plays like classic melodrama, and has certain charms. However, Lubitsch was invested in making an antiwar film with a romance attached, whereas Ozon reverses the order and tacks on a completely new second half. The results are oddly more artificial than the 1932 original, and considerably less moving.
Sales however are likely to be brisk, not just in the home countries of France and Germany but further afield. That’s partly because “Broken Lullaby” – originally titled “The Man I Killed” – is largely forgotten, and partly because “Frantz” is the kind of semi-arty costumer that plays well everywhere (it is significantly better than Ozon’s previous costume pic, “Angel”). It could also benefit from the ongoing centenary commemorations of the Great War, providing a far different context from the one that greeted Lubitsch’s film, released just 14 years after the Armistice.
The first half of “Frantz” is narratively faithful to “Broken Lullaby,” which starts in Germany in 1919; in the opening shot, Ozon fades from color to black-and-white, and thereafter reserves the polychromatic palette largely for prewar scenes. Anna (Paula Beer, “The Dark Valley”) lives in Quedlinburg with the parents of her dead fiancé Frantz (Anton von Lucke, in flashbacks). Joy is not a part of their lives since Frantz’s death one year earlier, and Anna remains with the kind couple, Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber), to look after them and mourn together.
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Anna is intrigued when she discovers that a Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney, “Yves Saint-Laurent”) is visiting Frantz’s tomb, especially as defeated Germany is hardly welcoming toward French victors. She politely confronts him at the graveside, and the emotionally fragile young man tells her that he was a friend of Frantz’s in Paris before the war. Moved by this connection to her lost love, she introduces him to the Hoffmeisters, though the doctor at first brusquely resists having any contact with a Frenchman.
Ozon picks up a remarkable number of scenes from “Broken Lullaby”: for example, one where Anna buys a dress for the first time since the war, in order to attend a town dance with Adrien. There’s also the sequence where Dr. Hoffmeister, now treating Adrien like a surrogate son, criticizes his Francophobe cronies, reminding them that while French soldiers may have killed their boys in the trenches, it was the German fathers, they themselves, who packed them off to battle. Sadly, Ozon is unable to match the wistful, understated magic of the dress scene, nor (by a long shot), the kick-in-the-gut potency of the antiwar tirade, which provided Lionel Barrymore with one of his finest moments on screen.
In its latter half, “Frantz” departs completely from the source material (which Lubitsch took from Maurice Rostand’s play, “L’homme que j’ai tué”), with Adrien returning to France. Anna’s emotional investment in her dead fiancé has transferred itself to Adrien, and when a letter she sends is returned, she takes the train to Paris in search of the enigmatic man. Ozon is far more comfortable with these scenes, in which he deepens Anna’s inner tussle: no longer a dependent of the Hoffmeisters but retaining her attachment to their son, she’s on a journey to discover whether Adrien is a substitute for her dead lover, or the way toward a new future.
Perhaps it’s not fair to constantly make comparisons, yet the choices Ozon makes force parallel assessments. For one, showing Frantz in flashbacks undercuts the potency of scenes in which his loved ones share his memory, especially as von Lucke has a soft, simpering quality that makes him far more suited to being paired with Adrien than Anna. The possibly homoerotic connection between the two men is never far from the surface, even though it’s not outwardly acknowledged. Lubitsch made his film as much about the parents as the Anna figure, which increased the sense of a gaping wound in all their lives; however when Ozon shifts to France, the Hoffmeisters are forgotten, and so too their grief, which Adrien was just beginning to assuage.
Casting choices are also a problem, as Niney’s Adrien is neurotic yet too smooth, bordering on blankness. In contrast, Phillips Holmes, Lubitsch’s underrated actor, played the character on the edge of hysteria, his inescapable, haunted gaze a far more powerful expression of war trauma than Niney’s passively handsome eyes. Beer is far more a stand-out, and clearly Ozon finds her a more interesting character.
Black-and-white is meant to ground “Frantz” in a fixed past, yet the reproduced monochromatic tones are obviously computer “corrected” from color, resulting in oddly flat visuals of little spatial interest. The color scenes work much better visually, especially as the palette chosen has the kind of genuinely older feeling that the black-and-white presumably strives, but fails, to meet. If monochrome is meant to convey something of the mournful quality of Europe at the time, it’s odd that Ozon shoots a trench scene – a very unnecessary trench scene – in color. Philippe Rombi’s score borrows heavily from Mahler in the first sections, intrusively aiming to enrich the emotions, leading to more Romantic orchestrations that fulfill the requirements of melodrama.