09 March 2015

"I Had Told Myself They're Just Like Us After All — but They're Not"

June 1940. Storms — both literal and metaphorical — are coming to Paris and to the small French town of Bussy. While France struggles to deal with the realities of the German occupation, Lucile Angellier (Michelle Williams) and her mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) are more concerned about keeping up appearances and keeping the family estate in good shape for when Lucile's husband returns from the prisoner-of-war camp where he is imprisoned. But when a regiment of German soldiers arrive in Bussy and one, Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts), is assigned to live with the Angellier women, Lucile's world changes forever.

Saul Dibb's new film Suite française is based on Irène Némirovsky's excellent novel of the same name. The novel was supposed to be the first in a series (one translation of the title is "French series"), but tragically, Némirovsky was arrested in 1942 and died later that year in Auschwitz. Sixty years later, her daughter discovered the manuscript among her mother's papers and the book soon became a bestseller. The novel itself is finely crafted, compelling and moving; in its transition to the big screen, the story feels a little more standard-WWII-melodrama, but the sterling performances from the three leads — especially Schoenaerts — elevates the film.

Lucile is a complex character to portray: the Angelliers are one of the wealthiest families in the village and even before the arrival of the Germans, she faces a fair degree of antagonism from her resentful tenants, not helped by Mme Angellier's hardball approach to rent collection. Lucile is also lonely — she misses her husband, but it's unclear how much she loves him, especially when we find out that they didn't meet and marry very long before war breaks out. She maintains a sort of friendship with Madeleine (a fiery, tough Ruth Wilson), who lives with her war-wounded husband Benoit (Sam Riley) and struggles to make ends meet.

When Bruno moves into her house, Lucile wants to hate him and her mother-in-law demands that she hate him, but Bruno is kind, seems reasonable and plays the piano beautifully. Lucile doesn't recognise the song he plays most often, a piece he composed himself called Suite française. Given the circumstances, though, their relationship can hardly be allowed to blossom and indeed, the film isn't just a tale of wartime romance: it's the story of a town in crisis, as the narrative weaves in the struggles faced by Benoit and Madeleine, and some of the other residents, including the mayor and his wife, and there is a great ensemble cast.

There are about two lighter moments, but this is not a happy film. I suspect it's not a movie that will stand the test of time, which is a shame because it tells an important story and does benefit from some great acting performances. It is also beautifully shot and, as you might expect, has a lovely score from Rael Jones.

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