Frantz and the Art of Letting Go

One hundred years ago, the world was in the midst of “The War to End all Wars”, which was apparently good enough to warrant a sequel and, with international tensions rising, maybe a trilogy? (If Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean taught us anything, it’s to stop at number two cause it just gets worse from there) This war was monumentally destructive, had a death toll of nearly thirty-eight million, and caused geo-political ramifications which echo through to this day. The epicenter of this war was in Europe, or ‘the Old World’ as bougie white people like to say. It pitted Russian people against Austrian people, German against French, and England against…their own journalists? Now fast forward to today – Europe looks a lot different. Since the early nineties, there’s this thing called the European Union that brought together some twenty-eight nations under some umbrella legislation which in some way unites the people of the continent. There’s no tussling with your neighbors anymore, because, in effect, you live under the same roof. They’re more like your sisters or brothers (or your cousins, in some cases) and you’ve become too politically and economically intertwined to actually do any harm to one another. The non-EU European countries, in comparison, can look like the leather-jacket wearing ‘greasers’ for not simply bowing to the status quo, so to speak. If that’s the case, then Russia is the Patrick Swayze-esque Darry leading this bunch of Outsiders in supporting nationalistic movements. They recently had Britain join them as Steve Randall, for reasons which should be obvious if you’ve seen Coppola’s movie. But, Outsiders references aside (and it really is unfair to make anyone a ”soc”), with the British out, the core of the EU falls on old foes Germany and France. One hundred years ago, they were killing one another in the trenches and today, they control a lot of the power in the region. They’ve made a lot of decisions as a team to economically benefit the region as a whole. But that union is becoming increasingly fragile, due in part to the Brexit. That concern, along with the influx of refugees and nationalist movements gaining traction across the region, has brought Europe back into the spotlight. What great timing to see a French-German post-war film called Frantz!

Our hero, Rivoire, looking just about as old-school French as he possibly can. Mustache-clad? Check. Sleight build? Check. Adrien Brody-style narrow face, check? Brooding sense of despair? Yep. Hey, this guy is French. The last guy (Broken Lullaby) was straight out of Michigan.

Frantz, directed by François Ozon, is a mostly black-and-white, subtitled, period piece about a young man who visits the family of a fallen soldier. On paper, it sounds like the visual equivalent of chugging a bottle of Zzzquil, but despite it’s aged subject matter, it spoke to the very relevant issue of divisiveness and kept you engaged. The visitor is a Frenchman named Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), who comes to visit a German family in a small German village. He is caught one day visiting the grave of a fallen soldier by Anna (Paula Beer – yes, actually), who happens to be the former fiancee of the dead soldier. She’s touched by this stranger’s kindness and is intrigued to see if he knows any more about her fallen husband, aptly named Frantz. Lucky for her, she doesn’t have to! Because this guy, of his own volition, seeks out the Frantz’s father to talk (the father does happen to be a doctor). This notably causes tension when Frantz’s father accuses Adrien of murder simply because of his nationality. Anna, who is living with her would-be in-laws, feels like there’s more to the story and seeks him out again and arranges for him to return. After meeting him, he tells them he is a former friend of Frantz and simply wishes to understand a bit more about where he came from. The family then makes a complete u-turn and decides that he’s a stand up fellow after all! The gesture is a small, but powerful one as the father who once attributed every heinous act the French committed against the Germans to one lowly, mustachioed baguette lover, comes to realize that this guy might just be a upstanding chap after all. Blanket statements can be dangerous!

The reaction Frantz’s father had was perfectly natural. People are going to such traumatic parts of life with polarized reactions. Those victorious in battle or otherwise will look back with the idea that they achieved greatness. The losers? Perhaps they’ll be a bit more revisionist in their analysis. But one thing is for certain: wounds heal. In the greater scheme of human history, one hundred years doesn’t seem like a particularly long time, but it has been long enough to slough off any residual angst between foreign foes. The geopolitical climate is always shifting, causing the courses of international interests to careen. Look at Germany and France today! Germany is Europe’s most powerful nation. This was the country who, for the first half of the twentieth Century was seen as the disneyland of fascism. But today, they’ve taken in more refugees than any other country in Europe And the French! Well, the country once known for it’s political revolution which acted as a launchpad for the modern democratic republic is at it’s own crossroads. The French election is down to it’s final two weeks, where the race is now between two candidates. Neither of which is representative of what one might traditionally expect. One candidate is a centrist banker and the other is a far-right populist. If the populist, Marine Le Pen, is elected, she has promised to remove France from the EU, which at this point is more fragile than an H&M shirt (Swexit next?). The whole thing could come toppling down and the growing tension in the region is something that hasn’t been seen in almost one hundred years.

Brexit certainly drew varied reactions from around the world. Though it’s not a daily conversational topic anymore, it’s effects are ongoing in Europe. In fact, Britain is about to undergo another risky vote. Sure, why not shake the already wobbly chair?

In Adrien’s case, the family seems to be forgiving. But it also makes them look like French-loving traitors, which weren’t big at the time. All the Germans we see are skeptical of Adrien and who could blame them? He’s charming, soft-spoken, Adrien Brody-in-Midnight in Paris lookalike who wants to do nothing but good all the time. But his charming demeanor doesn’t cause any problems until it helps him capture Anna’s heart. She starts to find herself attracted to him pretty damn quickly and, with almost no resistance from the family, she receives their blessing to pursue him, which is pretty weird considering she was slated to marry their dead son all of a year ago. Like, girl, TAKE SOME TIME. You can’t be chasing the man you meet at your former man’s grave! There’s this whole thing called a grieving process you should be focusing on first!

The original cast from Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby (1932). Interestingly enough, this film was made during the period between WWI and WWII, providing a bit of insight into the recent war, while hinging between one of the greatest periods of change of the last century.

The film is a remake of a 1930’s Ernst Lubitsch film called Broken Lullaby. And it’s more Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake than it is the Baywatch remake (but better than both). If anything, it’s success shows how timing might be the key element involved in the employment of the remake. Because despite the dated material, it just seems fresh. They even use black and white as the first film would have. It certainly helps to bolster the early twentieth century feeling and at first glance, like say the absence of color was being used in The Artist. But they use color in select scenes, in a more Schindler’s List kind of way (thankfully). Whereas color has become synonymous with modernity, Frantz connects it to the past. In one scene, Rivoire relives a day that he and Frantz spent walking around Paris and it looks like Tim Burton’s art director was right there bringing up the contrast in colors. It’s appropriate though, because the film wants to keep you present. Frantz feels like an old film in the way it’s structured. It’s got a classic, easy-to-digest, harder-to-relate-to story which, as the film slowly develops it’s purpose, evolves in meaning. At first it’s a story of war, then forgiveness, then love, then geopolitical relations, then interpersonal relationships and postwar identity politics, then (deep breath) the effect of the changing geopolitical landscape on it’s citizenry, and finally the whole damn thing ends up being about so much more. The story keeps layering on itself over and over and over again, but one theme remains – forgiveness. 

Ah look at this bunch! The French will have a new leader in a week’s time and the world is sitting eagerly on the edge of it’s seat to see who they choose. It feel like change is happening quicker than ever before with all these votes underway.

The Germany and France of today aren’t about to go to war or even get in a heated exchange with one another. But in terms of their ideological outlook, they may take very different paths in the coming weeks. Anna and Rivoire are like Germany and France – different perspectives brought together through the shared mourning of their lost lives. No matter which path they take, Europe will forever be united by the memories shared one hundred years ago. So with all this talk about the region becoming increasingly destabilized, it’s good to remember that no matter how many differences become pronounced between these countries, they all share a huge similarity through the collective loss of lives throughout the last century.  Kind of a dark bond to have, but hey! At least it’s all behind us now! The truth is, the history of conflict is present in Europe and across the world – those scars run deep.  When conflict seems so immediate and heated, it’s hard to think that there will be a time where the conflict is over. We live in a world where information travels so quickly that it seems life could end at any minute. But the world works in ebbs and flows, it balances itself out. Change is the one thing that is consistent. And as humans have overcome every significant change, they will continue to do so. So all that hubbub across the pond and beyond might look a lot different one hundred years from now. Though Turkey still won’t be in the EU – that’s for sure.

Anna and Frantz’s mother share a moment before she heads to France to visit Rivoire. Anna struggles with the idea, whereas Frantz’s mother’s face says, “(internally) PLEASE LEAVE ALREADY!”.

Adrien basically burns Anna and I won’t say why. But as a way of showing her forgiveness, she makes a trek out to France to visit him. This section parallels the first part of the movie, with Anna in the place of the outsider. But the wounds have healed and Anna is free to pursue Adrien guilt-free. Naturally, there’s a complication and she once again finds herself conflicted in her relationship with Adrien. The two struggle to overcome these obstacles which constantly present themselves, forcing them apart. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say it does leave Adrien and Anna in a good place, with all wounds healed and all forgiven. Let’s just say, based on the ending, it’s no surprise that the original was made during the Golden Age of Hollywood. But this isn’t a movie about Rivoire or Anna. It’s not about France or Germany. It’s called Frantz for a reason.

What Frantz was able to do, despite not being seen onscreen, was to bring together these former enemies and heal wounds. Europe has a long and decorated history, perhaps to a fault. Being a hub for civilization since the beginning of time, Europe has had it’s own internal struggles. But as this world grows and becomes increasingly connected with the various technological outlets, the stakes of conflict are higher. Understanding others is a great step on the path to progress. Rivoire and Anna don’t have to get together at the end of the movie, just like Germany and France don’t! But they leave each other with a better understanding of their situation and an appreciation for one another. Frantz sits heavily on the memories of both parties as they recognize the pain it’s brought them both. That’s ultimately all it takes. So in the midst of a region that has gone through a myriad of changes in the last hundred years, it’s important to remember where they came from before they decide where they go next. Only once they make this full circle, can they truly appreciate the art of letting go. Which is exactly what Frantz illustrated. The world can seem to get fixated on one problem after another without missing a beat. Every once in a while there’s a gem like this that comes along to break that cycle, by making one aware of it. Lucky for us, there are movies like this one, which has made it’s own journey through time. Unlucky for us, it just also happened to take the problems of the world along with it. One day, it will learn to let go.

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