Director: Saul Dibb
Cast: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas and Matthias Schoenaerts
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: March 13th
For over fifty years, Denise Némirovsky, the oldest daughter of the author Irène Némirovsky, kept what she believed was a journal or diary belonging to her mother, written during the Nazi occupation of France. Believing the material would be too painful for her to read, her mother died of typhus in Auschwitz, it remained unread until the late 90s when to her surprise, she discovered that it wasn’t a personal journal but rather two novellas that where to make up a five part series entitled Suite Française. Published in France in 2004, it became a bestseller, and what was surprising about the book was that despite the fact it was written during a time of unspeakable terror, it was written with a sense of reflectiveness over what was happening, and this film adaptation, directed by Saul Dibb, follows this line, interested not in the war itself but on the effects it has on people who have to live and survive under these conditions.
The story follows Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams) who, along with her domineering mother-in-law Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas), are awaiting news of the fate of her husband, a soldier in the French army. Their lives are disrupted however when a regiment of German soldiers take over the town and begin to move into the local people’s homes. When the German commander Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts) moves into their house, Lucille, under the orders of her mother in law, tries her best to ignore him. As she discovers more about him, such as their shared love of music, she begins to fall in love with him.
Of course the subject matter of Suite Française is nothing new. Films about World War Two have long been a favourite topic of filmmakers around the world. What is interesting about Suite Française is that unlike many films about the war, it doesn’t rely on standard tropes we would be familiar with when it comes to it’s characterisation. Not all of the German officers are depicted as being evil Nazis, with the character of Bruno being shown to be conflicted about the nature of war. And with this rural village being so far away from the heroic resistance fighters in Paris, the local people have to do what they can in order to survive, whether it is collaborating with the occupiers or from stealing food from the village’s wealthier residents.
It is through this refusal for standard characterisation that the film is able to explore the idea of life during wartime and during occupation. One aspect of life under these times is that when it comes to survival, any notions of solidarity or duty to ones country goes out the window. Not long after the Germans have taken over the village, the local Viscount visits the commanding officer to offer him “gifts” and assistance in exchange for personal favours. In another scene, Lucille discovers a large pile of notes on Bruno’s desk, given to him by local villagers, accusing each other as being thieves or actually being “secret Jews”. Lucille tells Bruno to ignore these notes as being written by people who are wishing to settle old scores and grievances, but it only shows to highlight the shocking opportunistic nature of people in these conditions.
For all these interesting approaches to its subject matter, they are certainly some problems with the film. One is that the film’s melodramatic tendencies tend to get the better of it, particularly in its final act. Another problem is to do with the accents of the characters. The main characters speak English to each other with a British accent, however when the German characters talk to each other they do in German. To confuse matters even more is that even though the French villagers speak English, radio broadcasts are heard in French and notices that are displayed on boards are also written in French. While I know that some people can go along with this, personally I found it annoying, in particular in a scene when the Viscount offers the German commanding officer a box of cigars. When the German officer turns to his assistant and asks in German “What is the French for bribe?” according to this film the answer appears to be, well, bribe.
Despite this, Suite Française is a handsomely made and quite engaging film, featuring strong performances from Williams, Schoenaerts and Scott Thomas. Its commitment for portraying people from both sides of this conflict as complicated, complex human beings puts it above your standard WW2 film.