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Frantz, a film by François Ozon; & a note about Hidden Figures

Of late, and by that I have in mind a dismaying stretch of six months or more, I have seen few films apart from February's Portland International Film Festival. There are periods when little that is on tap piques my interest. Other times I dither and fail to catch a film I intended to see at some point. Elle with Isabelle Huppert is prominent among the latter. Things to Come, Huppert's other recent film, is a favorite. Moonlight and Fences are fine films, deserving of the accolades and awards they have received. Rogue One is escapist fluff enjoyable enough for what it is.

A few weeks ago I finally made it to Hidden Figures, a heartwarming film about the role of black women mathematicians, scientists, and computer programmers in the early years of the space program that evoked memories of growing up in South Carolina in the 1960s, not just how wrong racial customs and mores of that time were, but how wrongheaded and often plain silly. How could people think that way? But many did. Too many still do.

François Ozon has a nice résumé, with Under the Sand, 8 Women, Swimming Pool, and Potiche to his credit. Frantz stands with his best. The setting is in a small town in Germany in 1919. Anna learns that a mysterious Frenchman visits the grave of her fiancé, who was killed during the war. When they meet the Frenchman tells her that he and Frantz were friends in Paris before the war when Frantz lived there as a student.

Adrien wants to meet Frantz's parents, with whom Anna lives. The encounter is awkward. Dr. Hoffmeister considers all Frenchmen responsible for the murder of his son. He wants nothing to do with this stranger but is swayed by his wife, who wishes to hear what her son's friend has to tell them about his life in Paris. For his part Adrien is reticent, hesitant, as devastated as Anna and Frantz's parents.

Adrien tells about going dancing with Frantz and to the Louvre, where Frantz's favorite was a painting by Manet of a man with his head thrown way back. I know Manet hardly at all, certainly not well enough to recognize the painting by Adrien's description. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, The Luncheon on the Grass, is the only one that comes to mind offhand, and it is not the painting.

Through these little stories and the tangible connection with a lost son that Adrien represents, the cloud of grief is somewhat lifted for the Hoffmeisters and Anna. But Adrien remains tormented. There is more to the story. On the night before he is to return to Paris, Adrien reveals his charade to Anna, and with this the film turn takes a turn. Anna must ask where her duty lies. Should she allow the Hoffmeisters to live under an illusion that brings them comfort? Or should she reveal a truth that will only bring more pain? And what of feelings for Adrien that stir within her. Of the plot I will say no more. There are several ways it could play out, and the suspense is part of the pleasure of a first viewing.

Frantz reminds me of my early experiences with European cinema some forty-five years ago. The story unfolds slowly. Much is conveyed by way of what is unsaid, a gesture, an expression, a gaze, in a moving exploration of loss and grief, guilt and forgiveness, desire, and compassion, filmed in black and white with exquisite grace and a soupçon of artiness at the close that makes for a nice touch.

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