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Non-Review Review: Suite Française

Suite Française is the name given to a planned series of five novels written by Irène Némirovsky during the Second World War. Living in France during the conflict, Némirovsky was Ukrainian and Jewish descent. She completed the first two novels in the series (Tempête en Juin and Dolce) and had outlined the third (Captivité) before she was arrested as a Jew in 1942. Némirovsky was detained at Pithiviers, before she was transferred to Auschwitz. She died in Auschwitz in August 1942.

The two novels were undiscovered for more than half a century; her daughter – Denise Epstein – only discovered the novels in the nineties. They were written microscopically inside journals. The 140 pages that Némirovsky had written expanded to more than 500 printed pages. There is some evidence that even the two “completed” manuscripts were not quite finished. Notes suggested that Némirovsky was considering revisions to Dolce so as to change the fate of a featured character. More than six decades after her death, Suite Française was eventually published in 2004.

An officer and a gentleman...

An officer and a gentleman…

Adapting any novel for the screen is tough job, let alone a sequence of five novels – only two of which were ever finished, and published posthumously. Part of the intrigue of Suite Française was the fact that these were novels depicting incredible historical events as they actually occurred. It is impossible to quite convey that sense of urgency and vitality after decades of storytelling about the Second World War. Although it is an adaptation of a novel published only a decade earlier, Suite Française has the weight of considerable expectations baring down on it.

Even allowing for the difficulties with this particular adaptation, Saul Dibb and Matt Charman’s script still feels quite clumsy in execution; despite excising most of Tempête en Juin, the finished script feels curiously over-written. Monologues tend to meander and wander, as if the script doesn’t trust the cast to convey deep emotion through their performances, as if the writers are afraid the audience might miss the key philosophical or moral points of the script. This is a shame, as Suite Française is beautifully acted and looks quite wonderful.

The good German...

The good German…

The bulk of the Suite Française draws from the set-up of Dolce. It is a love story between Bussy resident Lucille Angellier and Nazi officer Commander Bruno von Falk. As the town of Bussy deals with the weight of Nazi occupation, Angellier finds herself coming to understand and empathise with von Falk. Against the backdrop of war, an unlikely romance blossoms, with all the complications that might be expected during the Nazi occupation of France. It is an intriguing and provocative set-up – albeit one that must have seemed much more provocative against the backdrop of actual events.

Suite Française is largely elevated by its central performances. The ensemble is consistently impressive, even when sterling players like Lambert Wilson and Ruth Wilson find themselves cast in shallow and thankless roles. However, Suite Française is anchored in its two central performances. Michelle Williams brings a wonderful conflicted vulnerability to Lucille Angellier, even as the script has her deliver mundane monologue after mundane monologue. Matthias Schoenaerts delivers a nuanced and humanising performance as Bruno von Falk.

Keeping everybody occupied...

Keeping everybody occupied…

Saul Dibb’s direction is also clean and effective. He does a nice job establishing the blissful tranquility of Bussy – albeit a tranquility underscored by simmering resentments and unspoken bitterness. Suite Française expertly conveys the peace that has been disturbed by the arrival of these German divisions. There are a lot of idyllic shots of fields of wheat and barley blowing gently in the breeze, of grand stately houses laid low by the visiting soldiers. Suite Française is very good at conveying a sense of place and time, although there are moments where it feels almost like the film has escaped from a postcard.

The biggest problem with Suite Française is the script itself. The story often reduces what should be a harrowing portrayal of an incredible moment in history to clumsy clichés. At one point, it appears like the Nazis have uncovered a secret hiding space inside a family residence; the squad of soldiers all storm inside and up the stairs, the commandant is told to come and look at something. The audience gasps, the film wrings every possible piece of suspense from the sequence. But it’s okay; it turns out the bulk of the squad have just decided to remark on how wonderful the family’s linen looks.

Leading her down the garden path...

Leading her down the garden path…

There are lots of these sorts of moments – points where it feels like Suite Française doesn’t quite trust its audience to follow the film without requisite hand-holding. One of the big recurring themes of the story is that the members of this peaceful community have always harboured unspoken bitterness and resentment towards one another, an idea under cut by actually having characters make blunt statements about what they don’t like about one another or loudly judging their fellow residents in public spaces.

At one point, a returned evacuee praises Lucille for standing up to the Germans in stage whisper… while standing right next to the Germans who have just kindly returned her property. At another point, Lucille dresses herself up to impress and seduce von Falk. Questions about collaboration and complicity hang in the air, only for an anonymous extra to brazenly declare, “I know where you’re going, you German whore.” The script seems incapable of any subtlety or nuance in dealing with issues that remain controversial to this day.

Letters of note...

Letters of note…

For all that it is a story about the complexity and ambiguities of this sort of occupation, Suite Française draws very clear lines. Von Falk is very clearly identified as a “good Nazi”, both in his conduct towards Lucille and his conduct away from Lucille. His complicity in the war effort is addressed, but consciously downplayed in contrast to the movie’s obligatory “bad Nazi”, who is handily identified as completely and utterly evil by a scar above his right eyebrow. (At one point, the two have a conversation that serves to draw a very clear line between them.)

The action is repeatedly undercut by extended narration from Lucille that serves to distract away from the central performances. Both Williams and Schoenaerts are strong enough to carry a story like this, expertly conveying everything that needs to be conveying in knowing glances or fleeting kisses. As such, long-winded narration about love and collaboration diminishes the central performances. It feels like Suite Française trusts neither the actors to rely the obvious emotional subtext nor the audience to understand that subtext.

Time marches by...

Time marches by…

Suite Française is a stylish and beautiful production, albeit one undercut by a clumsy and over-written script. The setting and story are compelling, the cinematography and performances striking. Unfortunately, the script is never able to capitalise on these elements as well as it might. The result is a confused collection of individual components that work better in isolation than they do as part of the whole.

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2 Responses

  1. I loved that book so I’ll probably have to avoid the film. The book is just beautiful and very well-written.

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