Suite Française (2014)

Suite Française (2014)
  • Time: 107 min
  • Genre: Drama | Romance | War
  • Director: Saul Dibb
  • Cast: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Margot Robbie, Sam Riley


France, 1940. In the first days of occupation, beautiful Lucile Angellier is trapped in a stifled existence with her controlling mother-in-law as they both await news of her husband: a prisoner of war. Parisian refugees start to pour into their small town, soon followed by a regiment of German soldiers who take up residence in the villagers’ own homes. Lucile initially tries to ignore Bruno von Falk, the handsome and refined German officer staying with them. But soon, a powerful love draws them together and leads them into the tragedy of war.


  • The story of the discovery of the source novel is more dramatic than the film, Suite Francaise. But the film still manages a rare bleakness even for a WW II romance. We’re used to films where war corrupts good people and disrupts the essential brotherhood of man. The point here is that people are naturally vicious, vengeful, murderous, awaiting only the excuse of war to reveal their vile selves. Any humanity and possibility of love are the exception in this venal image of non-community.
    The German forces occupying the French village are conventionally evil, rapacious, sadistic, arrogant and murderous. Hero Bruno is the exception because he has delayed personally killing anyone, plays classical piano, composes the titular opus for the French heroine Lucille, and tempers his Nazi duties out of regard for her.
    The twist is in the characterizing of the noble French peasantry. It isn’t. The class system is as callous and bitter as the division by war. Upon the Nazis’ arrival the village erupts in personal vendettas, as the citizens spy and report on each other. No good turn is left unstoned.
    In this evil world the only good emerges out of evil. The occupation brings Bruno to Lucille. As she loses her illusions about her POW husband Gaston’s fidelity, she’s freed into an adulterous ardor and an even more dangerous political engagement. In Lucille Bruno finds a reminder of his better self, the sensitivity and virtue that alienate him from his soldier comrades. Fortunately, the central passion is not consummated. It’s aborted when Lucille sees Bruno kill the mayor in retaliation for the farmer’s murder of the Nazi planning to rape his wife. In a landscape of flawed humanity the brave farmer is crippled and the one humane Nazi officer is — a dutiful Nazi officer. His final service to Lucille betrays his duty and could explain why he “disappeared.” This is the tragedy of Iron Star-crossed lovers.
    The three central characters find redemption. Mousey wife Lucille grows independent enough to confront her mother-in-law, to at least open the possibility of an affair with the Nazi officer, and finally to reject him and his people in preference for work in the resistance. Madame Angellier moves from hard-case callous bitch to a kind of angel, briefly harbouring the Nazis’ prey, encouraging Lucille’s underground work and ultimately hiding and tending to the orphaned Jewish girl.
    Sad to say the film is packaged as a softcore romance rather than an incisive work of art. The romance is mush. The exposure of small-town evil is not as harsh as Clouzot’s Le Corveau. Worst of all, the film backs away from art by — though allowing the German characters to speak the requisite German — having all the French characters speak classy English. From that artifice the film never recovers.

  • “This German is our enemy. Do you understand? Yes. Madame.”

    Occasionally my lovely, sweet wife (yep, she regularly reads my reviews) gets the privilege to choose a movie. Usually this is accompanied by a blistering reproach that I always get it my way. I always think of her when choosing a movie and usually it’s an acceptable one. She tends to forget that. I usually look those gore and scarier flicks in the middle of the night on my own, so I’m saved from a wife who awakes in a panic while planting her sharp nails into my shoulders. Hence I braced myself for a romantic war drama and expected it to be a wilted station novel. Ultimately, it wasn’t so bad. The romantic rumble was limited and there was more attention for the mutual relations between the richer and poorer population in the village of Bussy and the vicissitudes of a fugitive, crippled farmer.

    Besides, I must admit that I have a weak spot for WWII movies. I readily admit that those were the dark pages in the history of Europe, but those developments in these years were a fertile ground for a whole range of excellent war films. The fact that Matthias Schoenaerts also succeeded in getting the leading role here, was another reason for me to give this movie a chance. Let’s say chauvinism raised its head and as a Belgian I’m proud to see how this fellow countryman has worked his way into the club of the better international actors (sorry Muscles from Brussels, but you just didn’t get in that club) Surprisingly, I didn’t suffer from aching jaws because of the complete absence of yawning. There’s of course the forbidden love between Lucille (Michelle Williams), the daughter of the strict and cold landowner Madame Angellier (beautiful played by Kristin Scott Thomas) on the one hand and officer Bruno von Falk (Schoenaerts), a German officer who has been assigned a place to sleep at the manor of the latter two ladies, on the other. Eventually, this forbidden love remains slumbering a bit on the background and isn’t imaged explicitly. But their like-minded love for music comes more to the fore. The additional story lines made it more interesting. The other arrogant German officer who sees himself as an Übermensch and treats the locals disrespectful, the callous mother in law who appears to be a resistance fighter in the making, the mayor and his wife (two genuine ass kissers) trying to get in good graces with the occupiers but face the consequences afterwards and the resistance of a peasant against the oppressors.

    All this is beautifully illustrated and featured with the usual scenes of war (a nosedive of German fighter-bombers against innocent refugees is included of course), which makes it an interesting war drama. But afterwards I didn’t think it was that innovative, so to speak. It’s the superb performances which nevertheless left a deep impression. The clichéd plot twists are not shunned, and what remains is a conservative adaptation of a manuscript left by a real war victim, Irène Némirovsky.

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  • The closing titles of Suite Française present the fact behind the fiction. Suite Française was intended to be a series of five novels by Irène Némirovsky, who had completed the first two installments before being arrested as a Jew in 1942. Némirovsky died in Auschwitz and the manuscript remained unread for 60 years. Its publication in 2004 was a testament to the raw power of her work-in-progress as well as a triumph of her immortal spirit. Director Saul Dibb, whose last effort was 2006’s The Duchess, includes some pages of the original manuscript in the film’s closing credits, and there is a particular and piercing heartbreak at seeing those handwritten words.

    The film adaptation does not quite equal that degree of heartbreak, but it does present an often moving account of life in the small French country town of Bussy during the first months of the German occupation. The war seems a strange, almost abstract, concept but the influx of Parisian refugees make the concept ever more concrete. The arrival of the German soldiers further upends the lives of the residents of the small community. The Germans display their dominance in relatively subtle but powerful ways. Clocks are set to German time, their currency will now be circulated, and all residents must house a German soldier or two. Even the German soldiers’ barechested displays in the town square are an exertion of sovereignty, reminding the wives of their empty beds and the young ladies of their unspoken desires.

    And yet…these Germans seem less like monsters than ordinary men. Take Lieutenant Bruno van Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts), who has been on the battlefield for as long as he’s been married. He has been billeted to the home of Madame Angellier (the always commanding Kristin Scott Thomas) and her daughter-in-law Lucille (Michelle Williams). All he requests is a key to the piano and a desk, he wishes no further inconvenience. Lucille, whose marriage is gradually revealed to be more a transaction of business than emotion, finds relief in Bruno’s presence. Williams and Schoenaerts are performers capable of the greatest delicacy and sensitivity, and their emotionally articulate portrayals lend shade and substance to the love story.

    The complex romance may be the central focus but moral complexities are in every fibre of the narrative. Part of what makes Suite Française a generally compelling watch is how the divides are broken down and rebuilt in often surprising ways. Madame Angellier is a much-feared character who makes few allowances for the hardworking tenants on her land, yet she will prove herself their strongest ally by film’s end. Even the mayor (Lambert Wilson), who suddenly finds sees his illusion of security severely shattered, evokes sympathy in spite of his using his wealth to circumvent the housing mandate. Wilson, arguably one of France’s most underrated actors, is nothing less than superb in his handful of scenes.

    The film is beautifully presented with top-notch contributions from cinematographer Eduard Grau, production designer Michael Carlin, and especially costume designer Michael O’Connor and hair and makeup designer Jenny Shircore. As lovely as the film is to look at, it does have its flaws. First and foremost is Dibb’s screenplay, which features voiceover narration that is wholly unnecessary since Williams expertly conveys Lucille’s sentiments. Margot Robbie’s role as a good time girl who liaises with the Germans could have easily been jettisoned since it is woefully underdeveloped. However, since Robbie’s star is very much on the rise, one suspects her reprieve from the cutting room floor may have been mandated by the marketing department.

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