A story of forbidden love during the Nazi occupation of France, Suite Française is handsomely shot, sensitively acted and, in places, genuinely stirring. But for all its qualities, the film can’t help but be overshadowed by the history of the book on which it is based.
Author Irène Némirovsky perished in Auschwitz in 1942 and her uncompleted novel about life in France following the German invasion of 1940 lay undisturbed for decades. But thanks to the efforts of her daughter, it was finally published to worldwide acclaim in 2004.
Director Saul Dibb and co-screenwriter Matt Charman’s film is an adaptation of ‘Dolce’, the second section of Némirovsky’s projected five-part novel, and takes place in the rural town of Bussy, where the story’s heroine, Michelle Williams’ Lucile, is living with her overbearing mother-in-law, Madame Angellier, while her unloved soldier husband is away at the front.
Played with typically haughty froideur by Kristin Scott Thomas, Madame Angellier is a wealthy landowner who tyrannises both her tenants and her meek daughter-in-law. Yet even she isn’t as high-handed as the German soldiers who occupy the town in the summer of 1940, preceded by a wave of desperate refugees from Paris following the city’s fall.
The invaders force the locals to provide billets for their officers and the Angelliers are obliged to share their home with Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts), a refined soul who would rather be a composer than a soldier. Confronted with this stranger, Madame Angellier remains obdurate and hostile, but Lucile, starved of affection, gradually softens her heart after she discovers the handsome German’s love of music and the pair embark on a dangerously illicit affair.
Lucile and Bruno’s relationship, the film’s main theme, finds its counterpoint in the contrasting responses the other townsfolk have to the occupiers, ranging from the genteel collaboration of the local aristocrats, the Vicount and Viscountess de Montmort (Lambert Wilson and Harriet Walter), to the belligerent resistance of lame farmer Benoît Labarie (Sam Riley), whose wife (Ruth Wilson) is unwillingly subject to the attention of the story’s nastiest Nazi (Tom Schilling).
And it is when attention falls on the wider community that the film is most compelling. Truth be told, Lucile and Bruno’s amour follows an all too predictable course, unnecessarily underscored by Lucile’s redundant voiceover narration, and its melodramatic ending is overly abrupt. But when the focus widens to reveal the occupation’s bitter ironies – such as the poison pen letters the locals send the Germans in a bid to settle scores with their neighbours – the film’s discordant harmonies become richly fascinating.
Certificate 15. Runtime 107 mins. Director Saul Dibb.
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