I’m glad I saw this World War II romance drama – one of the best of recent co-productions. I fear that many audiences will have been put off by reviewers like Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian who seem to be completely oblivious to its better points. It isn’t without flaws but mostly it is very good.
It’s worth mentioning the production background in some detail since it’s unusual in some ways. ‘International films’ made in Europe in English have been a feature of mainstream cinema since the 1950s, but usually these are in some way ‘Americanised’ even though they have European settings. Despite a credit for The Weinstein Company (the US distributor) and an American in the lead role, Suite Française is a French property made by Europeans (mostly British) in Belgium, but with a major French partner in the form of TF1 Films and Canadian input from Alliance/eOne. I mention this because some commentators have referred to a ‘Hollywood film’. Suite Française will get a major French release, presumably dubbed into French? It seems to have had a substantial budget and I wonder how many of the actors (mostly Brits and Germans) could have worked on a French language version at the same time? Just to clarify, the French characters in the film speak (British) English with accents and dialects that represent their position in society. The Germans speak German (with subtitles), except when they talk to the French, when, of course, they speak English. It all works fine. As the convention goes (in for example Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander TV series), all the printed material on screen is in the local language, i.e. in French.
Suite Française was published as a novel with two parts in 2004. It was written in 1940-1 by Irène Némirovsky, the emigré Ukranian Jewish writer, successful in France since the 1920s, who was sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. Her notebooks were re-discovered by her daughter in 1998. The first part of the novel tells the story of the flight from Paris at the time of the German invasion in June 1940. This is briefly alluded to in the opening scenes in the film which then goes on to adapt the second part of the novel. This deals with the early period of German Occupation of Northern France up to late Summer 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and the troops billeted in the small town/village of Bussy are sent to the Eastern front. Némirovsky had envisaged five parts for the overall story.
The film reworks this second story, ‘Dolce’, and focuses on Lucile (Michelle Williams) a young woman who had barely met her husband before he joined the French Army (and became a prisoner of war) and who must now endure being bossed about by her fierce mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas). Because they live in the best house in the village the two women are forced to accept a German officer as a lodger. Bruno (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) is a musical composer from a military family, an Oberleutnant, both cultured and ‘gentlemanly’ yet prepared to endorse the ‘spirit of community’ in the German Armed Forces. His fellow Leutnant is more aggressive and creates disturbance in another billet. The ‘other ranks’ are generally boisterous as in most successful invading armies. These are not necessarily the conventional Nazis of Hollywood war films – but they do carry out draconian policies in dealing with the local people.
Various French films of the 1940s have similar themes. For instance the classic Henri Clouzot film Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943) includes poison pen letters written by villagers about each other during the Occupation and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea, 1949) shares several key elements. This latter film was based on a novel published in 1942 by Jean Bruller but it seems unlikely that there was any connection between Bruller and Némirovsky. However, one link between the narratives does point to a major weakness in the new film – the voice-over narration by Lucile. In the Melville film the narration is essential since the French couple who have a German officer billeted on them refuse to speak (a strategy initially employed by many ‘occupied’ people – including Lucile’s mother-in-law). We learn about their thoughts from the old man’s narration which continues throughout much of the film. In Suite Française the narration comes at various points from Lucile but it is unnecessary in my view – we can see what she is thinking from her facial expressions, posture, actions etc. Not only that but it is mixed in an odd way and sounds ‘wrong’.
However, apart from the narration, everything else works OK. Bradshaw is very critical of Michelle Williams, arguing that she gives “a worryingly awful lead performance . . . [she] looks like she’s got access to serious amounts of black-market Mogadon cut with Temazepam”. I went back to the novel and the first description of Lucile suggests that she is “beautiful, blonde with dark eyes, but a quiet, modest demeanour and ‘a faraway expression'”. I’m not sure what Peter Bradshaw expects here. The narrative is about a woman from a region where middle-class society shows (in Némirovsky’s words) “a complete absence of any forms of emotion”. This is a woman who slowly blossoms and falls for the younger man who has invaded her home – where she is miserable under her mother-in-law’s gaze. I find that an interesting story. My impression is that overall, the adaptation follows the book’s narrative – some scenes are presented almost as written.
I could go on and pick Bradshaw’s review to pieces and I’m tempted because his approach with its ‘witty’ put-downs angers me so much. Instead, I’ll just focus on the issues of realism and social class. There are several interesting video clips on YouTube in which the various HoDs in the crew discuss how they researched French fashions and make-up in the period and how they studied various films including Le corbeau and Renoir’s La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939). They found a village close to the Belgian border which had been by-passed by progress and they were able to dress it effectively. Saul Dibb was appointed director of the film partly because of his success with The Duchess in which he managed to make a film which appealed to modern audiences without losing the sense of period setting.
Social class is crucial to the story. Némirovsky herself was the daughter of a wealthy banker in Russia and she carefully delineates the social strata of village society. At the top are the Vicomte (and Mayor) and his wife. Lucile’s mother-in-law is the richest non-aristocratic landowner. Lucile’s female friends are tenants she tries to protect from her mother-in-law’s avarice. There is also a Parisian woman and her daughter – Jewish refugees able to pay a higher rent (and in some ways representing Némirovsky herself?). The two Leutnants are both clearly ‘gentlemen’ and this is important in their dealings with the women. The women after all are living in a community where most of the fit young men have disappeared. It may be a cliché but we know that the one young man, a farmer disabled by a war injury, will be important in the drama that follows. Bradshaw refers to “a golden-tinted saga of everyday French collaborating folk”. This is an insult to Némirovsky who has actually provided us with certainly a ‘golden moment’ in the Spring and Summer but also a complex set of relationships and behaviours in which both collaboration and resistance are explored, much – one imagines – like they must have been across France in 1940-1.
I’m going back to the novel (which has re-entered the paperback chart) to see in more detail what Saul Dibb and Matt Charman have done with the characters and storylines in their adaptation. As my defence of Michelle Williams makes clear I have a lot of time for her acting skills and I found her scenes with Matthias Schoenaerts worked well. The film has clearly missed attracting the big audience its makers envisaged (it’s unlikely to make £2 million in the UK). I think it may find that audience on the small screen. I’m intrigued to find out what will happen to the film in France – it feels very British to me.
Official UK trailer:
Other French ‘Occupation’ films on this blog include:
Un sécret (2007)
Un héros très discret (1995)
Le silence de la mer (1949)