You can take “Frantz” at surface value, and that’s fine, since the surface is exceptionally pretty. But this artfully shot period drama comes to us by way of France’s François Ozon, a director who in films like “Under the Sand” (2000), “Swimming Pool” (2003), and “Young & Beautiful” (2013) has generally preferred to mess with moviegoers’ minds.
There’s more going on beneath the film’s still waters, and the trick is to figure out whether Ozon is after something serious here or whether he’s playing one of his little genre games. Either way, it’s time and ticket money well spent.
The setting is small-town Germany, just after the Great War. Anna (a radiant Paula Beer) mourns Frantz (Anton von Lucke, seen in flashbacks), the fiance she lost to trench warfare, visiting his grave each day. One morning, a stranger is laying flowers at the gravesite: Adrien (Pierre Niney), a hollow-eyed young Frenchman who claims he and Frantz were best friends in Paris before the war. United in sadness, he and Anna gradually find themselves drawn together in affection.
Ozon re-creates the period down to the clip-clop of horses’ hooves on cobblestones, and he uses lustrous black-and-white photography to signify the past (to us) and spiritual grief (to the characters). Anna lives with her fiance’s parents, the aging village doctor (Ernst Stötzner) and his wife (Marie Gruber), both of whom could have stepped from a 1919 photograph or from the supporting cast of an early ’30s movie.
That latter connection isn’t coincidental. “Frantz” is a remake of a little-remembered 1932 film called “Broken Lullaby,” based on a stage play and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the Hollywood master of early-talkie sophisticated comedy. Coming between two of Lubitsch’s all-time classics, “Trouble in Paradise” and “Design for Living,” “Lullaby” was a pacifist drama that was poorly received at the time, and Ozon follows the earlier film’s plot up to a point before leaping off to follow his own imagination.
I haven’t seen “Broken Lullaby,” but the earlier treatment seems to have centered on regret. The doctor is crushed by having patriotically sent his son off to die, and you probably won’t be surprised to learn the young Frenchman has unhappy secrets as well. But this filmmaker is more interested in the lies we tell each other, and the fictions we fabricate to make life bearable. (Patriotism being one such fiction; a sequence here turns the “Marseillaise” scene from “Casablanca” disturbingly inside out.)
There is no point in “Frantz” at which some character isn’t withholding the truth from some of the others. While Anna is naive enough at the start to believe that only truth can set one free, by the elegantly disturbing final scenes — after she has followed Adrien back to Paris and contended with his formidable mother (Cyrielle Clair) and her own disappointments — she understands the value and psychic safety of living a lie.
“Frantz” is pleasurable slow going, developing its themes at an amble but with a measure of suspense, sympathy toward its characters, and a lasting faith in filmmaking craft. Pascal Marti is the cinematographer, burnishing those black and white visuals until they bloom into unexpected color whenever the characters find a rare moment of peace. The lush score is by Philippe Rombi. The movie bears a passing resemblance to Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” in time period and visual approach, but it’s much more soft of heart and possibly of head. It only asks what it takes to want to keep living when the world around you seems intent on dying.
Directed by François Ozon. Written by Ozon and Philippe Piazzo, based on a film by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Paula Beer, Pierre Niney. At Kendall Square. 113 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, brief war elements). In German and French, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.