SUITE FRANCAISE (UK | France | Canada/15A/107mins)
Directed by Saul Dibb. Starring Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Margot Robbie, Ruth Wilson, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sam Riley.

THE PLOT: In 1940, the small town of Boussy is, at first, unaffected by the conflict in Europe, but when Parisian exiles arrive in the town, along with German occupying forces, things rapidly change. Romance quickly blossoms between Lucile (Michelle Williams) and German soldier Bruno van Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is installed in the home Lucile shares with her mother-in-law Madame Angelier (Kristin Scott Thomas). When a French man is accused of murdering a German solider, however, the relationships between the people of the town begin to change.

THE VERDICT: The story behind SUITE FRANCAISE is almost more interesting than the tale itself; written during the time it is set, Suite Francaise lay undiscovered among her things after author, Jewish French Irène Némirovsky, was interred in Auschwitz, where she died. Némirovsky’s daughter Denise believed the notebook to be a diary of her mother’s, and that it would be too upsetting to read, until she arranged to donate her mother’s papers to a French archive in 1998. It was then that Denise read the notebook, discovered two novels written in miniscule handwriting, and had it published in France. Quite the remarkable tale. The trouble is that SUITE FRANCAISE may have been a remarkable tale itself, at the time it was written, but in the years since it was lost, it seems the tale has been told many times over.

Michelle Williams takes on the lead role of Lucile in SUITE FRANCAISE, and she does fine in the role; she never quite sets the screen alight, but she is remarkably less insipid than she has been in the past. Matthias Schoenaerts carries on his streak of playing commanding roles, and makes Bruno both gentle and relatable, as well as intimidating and frightening. Kristen Scott Thomas continues her run of playing scary women incredibly well, Ruth Wilson plays a woman whose husband cannot go to war, but is unable to defend her or himself, Sam Riley takes on the role of a man on the run and Margot Robbie plays a feisty young woman who tries to see past the uniforms of the men who have invaded her home.

Story-wise, SUITE FRANCAISE is remarkably peaceful for a film set during World War II, but the love story between occupied and occupier is one we have seen on screen many times before. The connection between Lucile and Bruno feels a little like Stockholm Syndrome crossed with a notion that Bruno is not bad, he’s just misunderstood. Of course, friction has to come into the mix somewhere, and it arrives in the form of unfaithful spouses, slutty townsfolk and a truly unpleasant member of the German army. None of this feels in any way new, but it is still a well-told tale that is engaging on screen.

Director Saul Dibb – who also adapted the story for the screen, and whose last film was the Kiera Knightley vehicle THE DUCHESS – keeps the sets as pretty as possible, and the invading force as benign as possible. The real conflict comes from within the townsfolk as they come to terms with the reality of war, but a war that is still far over the hill and far away. The performances are fine, with a standout from Schoenaerts, but this is a story of romance set against a backdrop of conflict so, while the film is engaging enough to justify its running time, it is really nothing new or anything that we haven’t seen before.

In all, SUITE FRANCAISE is a well-told romantic drama full of conflict and tension. Schoenaerts shines, Kristin Scott Thomas does scary well, but this is a pretty tale about love in the time of war, and plays as such.

Review by Brogen Hayes

Suite Francaise
Review by Brogen Hayes
3.0Well-told drama
  • filmbuff2011

    Wartime romantic drama Suite Francaise aims to be a great drama but falls tantalisingly short of being the film it so much wants to be. During WWII, France is invaded and then taken over by the might of the German Army. The Occupation begins, stretching to the small town where Lucile (Michelle Williams) and her frosty mother-in-law Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas) live. Madame will be damned if she has to live by German time (though aren’t France and Germany in the same Central European time zone?). The arrival of Lieutenant von Falk (Matthias Schoenarts), who takes up residence in their house, stirs things up. But Lucile is irresistibly drawn to him and starts sleeping with the enemy. There will be repercussions for her and the entire town… Suite Francaise was a planned series of books by Irene Nemirovsky, a Jewish writer who died in Auschwitz in 1942. They remained undiscovered until the 1990s and were finally published in 2004. That real-life background and coda at the end lend some poignancy to the events in Suite Francaise. It’s a pity that the story itself isn’t as strong. The story of the Occupation is not a pleasant one, but yet the film looks far too pretty and feels too self-involved to really have an impact. The mix of accents is confusing too. Do provincial French people really talk with plummy English accents? Scott-Thomas can do a decent French accent, so why not use that? The performances can’t be faulted though, with Williams and rising Belgian actor Schoenaerts commanding the screen. Director Saul Dibb (The Duchess) keeps things interesting, if not enthralling. Suite Francaise is a decent film for what it’s worth, but it’s unlikely to linger long in the memory like, say, The English Patient. ***

  • emerb

    “Suite Francaise” is director, Saul Dibb’s, film adaptation of parts of Irene Nemirovsky’s incomplete World War 11 novel, discovered by her daughter after her death and published in 2004. Nemirovsky was a well-known author but she died in a concentration camp, this tragic backdrop should provide extra publicity for the film. Planned as a five part novel, only two were completed and adapting these works was never going to be an easy task. The director smartly concentrates his attention on the controversial and tentative relationship between a Nazi officer and a French woman against the background of the German occupation.

    The film starts in France in June 1940 with the population of the provincial town of Bussy preparing for the arrival of a Germans, many of whom will be billeted in their homes. We witness the various reactions of its citizens to the occupation but at the heart of this film, Dibb and co-screenwriter Matt Charman focus primarily on the clandestine love affair between Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams) and Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts). Bruno is a young German officer sent to stay in the house of overbearing and manipulative mother-in-law to Lucille, Mme Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas). Lucille is in a state of limbo, awaiting news of her husband who is a prisoner of war. We learn he had been unfaithful to her before its outbreak and she knew nothing about it – she is heartbroken to learn the marriage was simply one of convenience. Lucille finds Bruno handsome, sensitive and cultured, they share a passion for classical music and this is what brings them together. Before the war, Bruno was a composer and he asks to play Lucille’s piano, they slowly and shyly bond over their shared interests. What begins as a cautious and awkward relationship soon
    turns to a blossoming love but the reactions of the townsfolk create problems.
    Life in the town becomes fraught with bitterness and unease. The German
    soldiers begin tormenting the men and violently harrassing the women while the villagers start to betray each other. Bruno is called to bring justice and settle the problems as events reach fever pitch. When a German officer is shot, the tenant farmer, Benoit (Sam Riley) is forced to run and hide. Dramatic events ensue as they turn to Lucille to offer him refuge, despite knowing that this will put her life in peril.

    All of the performances are remarkably good and this is what keep the film from dipping too far down the sweet and schmaltzy path, in particular the wonderful chemistry between Schoenaerts and Williams. Williams is the stand out for me. Playing the role of a sad and troubled woman falling for a sensitive and compassionate soldier wasn’t a particularly easy one but she carries it off with ease and credibility. She imbues her character with vulnerability and intelligence, perfectly capturing the loneliness of her situation – stuck in an unhappy marriage
    and her disillusionment with France and her life as a virtual prisoner. Kirsten Scott Thomas is as consistently reliable as ever, cold, calculating and yet elegantly domineering. Rising Belgian star, Schoenaerts, strikes a nice balance between a polite, courteous young man smitten by Lucille and an authoritative German soldier with profound reservations about the regime he’s obliged to serve. The supporting cast also includes the destitute farming neighbours – Madeline (Ruth Wilson) and her volatile farmer husband Benoit (Sam Riley), feisty local girl Celine (Margot Robbie) who has her own illicit relationship with a German, though to the local Viscount (Lambert Wilson) and Viscountess (Harriet Walter) who trade with the forces in exchange for favourable treatment.

    “Suite Francaise” is a most enjoyable literary adaptation of a dramatic and tortured romance. I found it both poignant and engaging. At its heart is a tale of forbidden love but it also gives a nice depiction of the many interweaving relationships in the town and how war permeates every level of society. Dibb paid great attention to detail and the lavish costumes, the attractive hair and makeup design and lush settings richly evoke the era. I think that this film will appeal
    to both literary audiences (the source novel was extremely well received) and lovers of a good old fashioned and thoroughly charming romance (like me!)