Irène Némirovsky was a French author of Jewish origins, who died in 1942 during the Holocaust; her last novel "Suite Française" was discovered in manuscript by her daughter in the nineties and first published in 2004. This film is officially an Anglo-Franco-German co-production, but features an American leading lady and, although the German characters speak to one another in their own language, the French ones all speak English. Such is the Anglo-Saxon domination of the movie business these days that the French find it difficult to get a French-language film made out of a novel set in France by a leading French novelist.
The action takes place in 1940, in the town of Bussy in Nazi-occupied France. A young woman named Lucille Angellier falls in love with Bruno von Falk, a German officer. Lucille is married, but her marriage does not seem to a happy one and she discovers that her husband has a mistress and an illegitimate child. Bruno is also married, but we learn little of his wife in Germany.
The standard way of making a drama like this would be to make Bruno a "good German"- i.e. anti-Nazi. Here the position is a bit more complicated. Bruno is good-looking, courteous, and sensitive and sees himself as humane. In civilian life he was a composer and musician; the title derives from his latest composition. Yet he is not anti-Nazi. Indeed, he seems to be in sympathy with elements of Nazi ideology, although he prefers to speak of the "collective spirit". He claims to be a Francophile, but can see nothing wrong with his country invading and occupying France if the German leadership believes that military necessity demands it. His main complaint is that some of his countrymen make it impossible to wage war in the correct chivalrous spirit.
At first there is no active resistance in the area; some French people actively collaborate with the Germans while others try to get on with their lives as best they can. Things change when a local farmer shoots dead a Nazi officer who has been making advances towards his wife. The man goes into hiding and the German commander orders harsh reprisals. Lucille is faced with a moral dilemma, and Bruno realises that war can no longer be a matter of chivalry.
The best acting performance comes from Kristin Scott Thomas as Lucille's domineering mother-in-law. The wealthy Madame Angellier is not popular in the town, partly because she is a prize snob and partly because she treats her tenants with disdain, mercilessly rack-renting them. (Her wealth derives from her ownership of land which she leases out to local farmers at high rents). When the invasion comes, however, she reveals herself to be a truer patriot than many of those who despise her, refusing to have any truck with the occupying soldiers. Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts, however, never give much sense of any grand passion; I was somewhat disappointed in Williams who was better in some of the other films in which I have seen her, such as "My Week with Marilyn" and "Shutter Island".
Indeed, I was somewhat disappointed in the film as a whole. I have never read Némirovsky's novel, but I have heard it described as a rediscovered masterpiece, so I came to the film expecting something special. It isn't. It isn't anything particularly bad either, but it is certainly no masterpiece. It is little more than the sort of standard wartime romance with which we in Britain have become very familiar over the years since 1945. The very implausible ending seemed to have been contrived to tack a happy conclusion onto a story which seemed to be moving inexorably towards tragedy. It might have been better if "Suite Française" had been made as a French language movie; it might not have done such good business at the box office, but it might have had more originality and artistic integrity if the producers had not had to worry about how it would go down in Germany, Britain and America. 6/10
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