In Germany after World War I, a feeling of defeat is permanent. For Anna (Paula Beer), that grief extends to going to the cemetery every day to mourn the loss of her betrothed, Frantz (Anton Von Lucke, in flashbacks). One day, she finds a French coin on Frantz’s grave, placed by an old friend of the fallen named Adrien (Pierre Niney). Adrien is French, has just come back from war, and is in the small town of Quedlinburg to mourn his friend. However, as animosity between two national enemies remains a constant, Anna and Adrien try to find a spark of friendship, or even romance, in the fallout from a brutal war.

It is something of a surprise to find a drama of lovely restraint from French filmmaker François Ozon. Here, the auteur behind such sexually liberal works like Swimming Pool and Young & Beautiful updates, quite terrifically, a lesser-known Ernst Lubitsch picture. (That would be Broken Lullaby, from 1932.) Although Ozon’s romantic drama takes place close to a century ago, its themes surrounding nationalist fervor (in Germany and France, no less) and postwar trauma still sting with a contemporary resonance.

Frantz is not just an affecting drama, but a stylistically innovative one. Usually, directors will employ black-and-white flashbacks to separate the time periods in the story. Here, Ozon drifts from the sepia-toned 1919 to colour flashbacks, projecting the glowing spirit of the happy, pre-war era. (The sparingly used, but effective flashes of colour through a cold, devastated postwar Germany, provide ample warmth.) Eventually, this ordinary story of grief and humanity becomes more intricate due to some surprising twists. The winsome performances from Niney and Beer keep us absorbed in how the characters will respond to the changing circumstances. The two actors fluctuate between holding back feelings and letting them loose, attuned with the drama’s balance of repression and passion.

Despite superb acting and taut plotting, Frantz could have used more nuances. Some of the plot revelations feel oddly expository, when it would not seem like a difficult task for Ozon to show us the shifting moods and decisions of the characters. An early exchange between Frantz’s neglectful father (Ernst Stötzner) and a surly German with hate in his heart (Johann von Bülow) shouts the film’s central themes, as if they would somehow escape the viewer. Nevertheless, as a showcase for many fine European actors – especially Paula Beer, destined to be a fixture on the festival circuit – Frantz is a large success.