Film review | Crossed lines from the front line

Your friendly neighbourhood film critic is currently in Rome, sampling the cinematic delights of the Eternal City – here’s hoping some of these gems make their way down to our shores • 4/5

Star crossed? Pierre Niney and Laura Beer are excellent in Francois Ozon’s deeply felt and ironic interwar drama
Star crossed? Pierre Niney and Laura Beer are excellent in Francois Ozon’s deeply felt and ironic interwar drama

An old cinema at Campo de’ Fiori in Rome – the Farnese Persol, formerly known as the ‘Cinema Romano’ and open since the 1930s, when it was primarily used as a theatre – is currently screening the latest film by the acclaimed French director François Ozon, Frantz.

The setting for the film was a pleasure in and of itself: the elegant and well put-together hall – I opt to sit in the gallery – the corridors draped in red, interrupted on occasion by striking large posters advertising refreshingly non-commercial upcoming attractions. Then of course, there was the ‘campo’ itself, where I indulge in a bit of a ramble ten minutes or so before the afternoon screening is set to commence.

The afternoon will soon turn to evening, though, and the sellers are busy dismantling their stalls – always under the watchful eye of Giordano Bruno, under whose iconic cowl the evening revelers will soon be gathering up for the aperitivo.

The film starts rolling after only a perfunctory bit of advertisement – and of course, no intermission later on – and we’re simply given a date to start with: 1919, with colour slowly fading to black and white as we fade into the scene of a German village, seen from a distance. Soon, the figure of a young woman, Anna (Paula Beer) appears at the cemetery in which we find ourselves – depositing flowers at the grave of her fiance Frantz – felled in the Great War just a year prior. And so the story gets underway, silent and muted to match the pain of the young widow and that of her fiance’s family, with whom she now lives as if she were their own daughter.

All we hear at first is the rustling of the leaves – which we will hear again, and which immediately brings to mind that crucial scene from Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966): not least because in a subtle way – intentionally or not – it carries over the same feeling of the rift between fact and fiction; between knowledge and concealment. 

But this time, she finds that somebody has already left flowers on her fiance’s tomb and, thanks to a French coin left behind by the same stranger, she discovers this to be Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) – a Frenchman, and so an enemy who can expect to be treated as such by the mourning German community in which he finds himself. But in this case, the tears signify the ‘liquid’ identity that binds all of Europe in mourning, just as Anna – who had her own French-language code as she corresponded with her lover – will discover in a subsequent voyage out of Germany.

Frantz, which was presented at this year’s edition of the Venice Film Festival, is a film about mirroring, about constant references; from delicate violin notes to the poetry of Verlaine: passions that two men stuck in the snowy trenches don’t yet know they share. The alternation is even evident in the film’s colour palette, which switches from colour to black and white – but always at low saturation – and which describe the timid desires of a life that discreetly appears… only to fade retreat when the fresh jolt of pain or guilt swoops in to make itself known.

Frantz reminds us that art is a universe of references – both conscious and unconscious – which are capable of annihilating differences – be they temporal or geographic. The plot, transformed from a theatre piece from the 1930s by Rostand entitled, ‘L’homme que j’ai tue’ and taken up a couple of years later by the film director Ernst Lubitsch for the feature ‘The Man I Killed/Broken Lullaby’ finds its musical corollary in the work of the famed Italian singer-songwriter Fabrizio de Andre – weren’t we talking about universality, earlier? – specifically, 1964’s La Guerra di Piero. 

“E mentre marciavi con l’anima in spalle vedesti un uomo in fondo alla valle che aveva il tuo stesso identico umore, ma la divisa di un altro colore”. It’s the final verses that stick in the mind though, detailing the fate of Ninetta – the name being, lest we forget, a diminutive of ‘Anna’ – who is mourning her lover from the homestead... and whose memory we can imagine switched back into Technicolour. 

“Ninetta mia crepare di maggio, ci vuole tanto, troppo coraggio, Ninetta bella dritto all’inferno avrei preferito andarci in inverno”.