Several times in Frantz, director François Ozon’s requiem for post-World War I Europe, Philippe Rombi’s score returns to a refrain that sounds like a piano seeking out and nearly achieving the chords to “Ode to Joy,” the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s a small gesture, but one that speaks to the deep-rooted unrest that keeps Frantz’s characters from finding any kind of solace.
The thing holding everyone back is the death of the titular character—a young German with a passion for music and art who, pushed to enlist in the army by his father, was killed in action. Months later, his parents and fiancée Anna (Paula Beer) are still mourning his passing, but are eased out of their despair by the arrival of Adrien (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman who seems to have known Frantz before the war and shares in the family’s grief. Initially confused and icy to this stranger, the family eventually adopts him as a reminder of, and a surrogate for, their lost loved one.
Ozon uses Frantz to investigate the nature of forgiveness following a war—though they shared a border, Germany and France were on opposite sides of the conflict—and the weight of grief. And he finds a simple but hugely effective way to symbolically reflect the moments when his characters find calm and comfort. While most of the film is in black and white, certain scenes—like Anna and Adrien enjoying an afternoon hike and a swim—are rendered in lavish color. That those florid moments are few, and even include a painful flashback to the war, only emphasizes how conflict and suffering can drain the wonder out of everyday life.