VOD film review: Suite Francaise
Clarisse Loughrey | On 27, Jul 2015
Director: Saul Dibb
Cast: Michelle Williams, Kristen Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts
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Irène Némirovsky’s daughter couldn’t bear to read her mother’s notebook. Presumed to be a diary of sorts, she knew what inevitable, ghastly conclusion its final pages would signal: her death at Auschwitz. No mind should be forced to return to that hell, yet in 1998, the pages of Némirovsky’s notebook finally began to spill open. To a stunning discovery: the cramped, miniscule handwriting contained inside wasn’t a journal, but novels. Two novels, in fact, with plans for more.
The first, Tempête en juin, told of Parisian refugees, and the second, Dolce, brought to life the German-occupied town of Bussy. Némirovsky had chosen not to write of her own experiences, but to write at large about the war which engulfed her; to find her own kind of freedom. Her collected works were eventually published under the name Suite Française, a bestseller in 2004.
Though Saul Dibb’s adaptation briefly features the Parisian exodus of Tempête en juin, the majority of material here derives from Némirovsky’s second novel, as Lucile Angellier (Williams), a war bride trapped under her mother-in-law’s roof, falls for the German commander lodged in her home, Bruno von Falk (Schoenaerts). Dolce gives equal footing to its storyline of a resistant farmhand (Sam Riley) struggling against a German soldier’s attempts to seduce his wife, but this is Hollywood: the doomed love affair must always take centre stage.
It’s a familiar spectacle, but one orchestrated with such a sweeping sense of tragic romanticism: the rich orchestrations, the fragile beauty of its cinematography. All stirred to life by an ensemble of performances that capture every conflicting stab of emotion, anchored by the lifetime of longing caught between the glances shared by Williams and Schoenaerts. Suite Française plays like the scent of perfume lingering in a room long left vacant by its occupant.
By turning its gaze away from the overtly familiar, the invasion of Paris glimpsed through brief, introductory clips of news reel footage, Suite Française serves as a fascinating portrait of war as experienced by the individual. Specifically, the individuals poised at its fringes, where war is the slow coil of a nightmare inching forward, only to explode into sudden violence – a random air attack, or the thunderous roar of marching boots shaking the foundations of the local church as people pray. It’s a sudden turn to a life where survival is the only thing which matters, and raw humanity is exposed at its fullest. “If you want to see what people are truly made of, start a war,” the film wisely advises. Good and evil don’t always ally to opposing sides: French villagers take the occupation as an opportunity to settle old scores, and von Faulk reveals himself as a man more than capable of heroic acts.
Yet this wasn’t just a war fought over territorial dispute: it was a war fought over ideology, a notion this film does struggle to fully confront. Von Faulk’s turmoil over his French beloved is beautifully articulate, yet what of the rest of his conscience? What hideous torture must lie somewhere in the mind of a good man made to fight on the side of great evil? The answer is perhaps too unreasonably difficult to expect of Dibb’s earnest romantics; thought while it may fail to be truly profound, Suite Francaise is still a rich and loving tribute to the sublime work of its original author.
Suite Francaise is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.