Photographed in black and white, apart from a few, meaningful scenes, François Ozon’s film is centred around a man’s misleading identity and a woman’s loneliness in the midst of war traumas, which had left them both emotionally scarred. The choice of sober greys (a César Award winner for Best Cinematography) seems very adequate for the intended atmosphere, reminding the viewer of Schindler’s List or, to some, of The Master and Margarita (the Russian 2005 TV series, where the Moscow scenes are shot in black and white, in contrast to those from Christ’s Jerusalem).
Although Anna, the female protagonist, seems for a long period of time to be just a discreet, secluded woman, a sort of embodiment of Life-in-Death, in fact she is the heroine of the film. We witness an evolution of her character, through pain, hope and recurrent depression. It is the story of a lonely struggle to regain hope and then free herself from the past and from the net of lies and guilt created around her by Adrien, the male protagonist. Discreet and composed, Anna (Paula Beer, in an acclaimed and award-winning performance) starts as expression of pain, solitude and mourning, a modern version of the heroine of a Greek tragedy, while at the end we encounter her in a posture of independence and detachment from the previous traumas.
The director’s approach, in which less turns to be indeed more, brings to the fore two extremely expressive protagonists, the tormented Adrien and the profound and evolving Anna, who communicate far beyond their limited dialogue or discreet body language.
The title mentions an absence: young Frantz, Anna’s fiancé, has died in the recent WWI and she, despite her youth, lives almost buried in the state of mourning, between the house of her grieving in-laws (her only family, marking from the beginning her loneliness) and the cemetery where she goes daily. The cemetery itself hides an absence: Frantz could not be found and brought back home, the grave being, therefore, empty. The title of the film is, thus, related to this game of absence and presence, and, though the film is a remake of Broken Lulluby (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932), itself an adaptation of Maurice Rostand´s L’homme que j’ài tué, it does not use these titles.
The cemetery sets the scene for an interruption in Anna’s sad rituals that seem to occupy her life: Adrien, a Frenchman, visits the tomb and seems to open a gate towards Anna’s comeback to life. He alleviates the pain of the parents and fiancée with a happy story about Frantz’s stay in Paris before the war, visiting museums and learning to play the violin, with Adrien as his instructor.
Cultivated and refined, the Frenchman plays the violin for the broken family and takes Anna to walks, swimming or dancing, despite the disapproval of a community, still hurt and prejudiced against the recent war enemies. Fascinated, Anna (as well as her father-in-law) supports and befriends Adrien, who appears as a substitute for the lost one (see the metaphor of her dream in which there is an ambiguity on who is the young man playing the violin).
This game of ambiguity takes, however, an unexpected turn that reveals a misleading identity and, besides the war traumas and loss, a story of guilt and lies. It is not the expected solution to the mystery of Adrien’s pain (the viewer is mislead to think for a while that Adrien and Frantz had been lovers) but a more tragic one: he killed the German boy about whom he wants now to know more. Anna keeps away from the family and eventually forgives the dark secret shared by Adrien, despite having taken her on the verge of suicide in her despair to cope with this while in love with the Frenchman. Anna’s struggle to find forgiveness is part of the story of her solitude: she even hides her suicide attempt, asking her saviour to say nothing to Frantz’s family. She equally reveals nothing of Adrien’s guilt, so as to preserve his illusion and comfort of forgiveness.
This leads to the innocent parents’ advice to Anna to follow her heart and search for Adrien in France, in an attempt to overcome grief and guilt and materialise the romance anticipated during his visit. Here, the net of lies and ambiguity that seemed to have been overcome, unfolds in new painful revelations. Anna’s journey – that would eventually help her free herself from the past and overcome grief – takes unexpected turns, from her fears that guilt had led Adrien to depression and suicide (Manet’s painting on the topic is a leitmotiv of the film) to the paradoxical discovery of a renovated, rich and happy Adrien, overwhelmed with joy to see her.
The promise of the romantic happy-end is again brutally interrupted, however. While seemingly welcome to the beautiful chateau, with gratitude for her help to Adrien’s recovery, Anna encounters a totally unexpected reality: Adrien, a different person than the one she had expected, restored to life and enjoying a rich lifestyle, has a fiancée, although he had mentioned nothing about her during their “brief encounter” in Germany or their correspondence.
Marked by war, nonetheless, he will not, after all, substitute the deceased and fulfill the unspoken promises made in Germany, but go on with the life that the war and tragedy had just for a while interrupted. In the series of discoveries she makes during the film, Anna is struggling all by herself to cope with shock and loss but her strength (the same that had saved Adrien from his torment and guilt and restored him to his previous life) prevails. She manages, in the final scene, to contemplate Manet’s painting, with all its painful associations, and enjoy it, as a symbol of her own survival.