In Nazi-occupied France, bucolic but class-divided life in the small town of Bussy is upended by the arrival of refugees from Paris and soldiers in combat boots from Berlin. Horrified at being housed as an officer of the invading army, haughty Madame Angellier (a terribly uptight Kristin Scott Thomas) and her charming daughter-in-law Lucile (Michelle Williams) become the subject of a vicious whispering campaign by the villagers of whom they have extorted high rents for years. In stark contrast to such native hostility, dashing German officer Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts) proves to be a disturbingly charming house guest, playing soulful melodies on Madame Angellier’s locked piano, and discreetly courting the nervous Lucile over whose little soldier-husband is heard more than rumor. Meanwhile, brash Benoît (Sam Riley) treats his landlords like despicable collaborators as he struggles to keep Nazi hands off his wife and family, an injured leg doing little to dampen his fierce zeal for resistance.
The now-famous origins of the suite française, which became a publishing sensation in 2004, are as surprising and extraordinary as anything on screen, possibly more so. Having fled Paris as the Nazis approached in 1940, Ukrainian Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky moved to Issy-l’evêque in Burgundy, where she began work on a planned five-part story about war and peace. But after being transported to Auschwitz, Némirovsky died (at just 39 years old) in 1942, and her notebooks were entrusted to her daughters Denise and Elisabeth, who believed them to be diaries. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Denise discovered what turned out to be the first two installments of Némirovsky’s extraordinary unfinished oeuvre. Published under the general title of Suite Française, these two stand-alone novels were reportedly bought by Hollywood’s Universal Movies. But by 2007 the title had reverted to French ownership by tf1, with whom British co-writer and director Saul Dibb brought this co-production between France, the UK and Belgium to the screen.
Artfully distilling the essence of their original stories, Dibb and co-writer Matt Charman (whose credits include Spielberg’s upcoming cold war thriller Bridge of Spies) weave the Parisian exodus from the first novella, Storm in June, into the country melodrama of the latter, dolce, to create a satisfyingly rounded yet perfectly compact narrative. While the central romantic concept may be familiar (the “sleeping with the enemy” scenario is a well-worn war drama staple), the blurred lines and conflicting loyalties that Dibb and Charman grapple with are gratifyingly complex and unarmedly compassionate.
Although at first glance several characters seem to be trading on generic archetypes, the film delights in throwing off our expectations, nowhere more so than in the character of madame angellier, whose icy surface hides oceans of anxiety and pain (i reminded Miranda Richardson’s Miss Lorimer in James Kent’s recently flawed but emotional adaptation of The Testament of Young People). In fact, one of the film’s most arresting sequences features a life-or-death moment of tenderness between two characters previously cast as almost irredeemable, supporting actors Harriet Walter and Lambert Wilson stealing the film from under the noses of your stars with perfect precision and understatement.
Amidst the sociopolitical intrigues of life in an occupied town that the labyrinthine narrative is primarily concerned with, the supposed love story between Lucile and Bruno may prove to be the least interesting element. Both Williams and Schoenaerts are gifted gamers, but there’s a peculiar absence in Lucile’s character (unaided by her boring voiceover) that’s at odds with Williams’ brilliantly complex and engaging work in movies like Blue Valentine and Meek’s Cutoff. . Yet even this may be a strength rather than a weakness, reminding us that these two little people’s troubles don’t really amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, and pointing us instead to Benoît’s tortured heroism, the defiance oppressed. of ruth wilson’s cupcake, and the stoic resistance of those who refuse to live “in german time”.
beautifully shot on 35mm by cinematographer eduard grau, the suite française benefits from well-chosen belgian locations (marville provides a splendid setting for bussy’s bustling town square) that add depth, texture and a sense of tangible of history. Production designer Michael Carlin, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Dibb’s previous film, The Duchess, continues to prove himself, creating a world that stretches beyond the edge of the frame, a canvas as wide and detailed as the characters themselves. It makes sense, too, that the “French” dialogue in English be broadcast without the cod European accents beloved by Hollywood, and Dibb opted to use the distinctive class inflections of his mother tongue to unravel themes of historical injustice and inequality that existed during a long time. before the (German-speaking) Nazis arrive.
at its weakest, the suite française leans a bit towards soft sudsiness, bruno’s tinkling piano theme demonstrating his inner spirituality (written by alexandre desplat) merging with rael’s love and war score jones in a maturely sentimental way. Yet there are enough rough edges in this portrait of a shattered city to nullify any melodramatic sheen, and an impressive sense of balance that belies the tumultuous birth of Némirovsky’s handwritten manuscripts, which heartbreakingly accompany the closing credits.