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United Kingdom/France/Canada/Belgium 2014
Directed by
Saul Dibb
107 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Suite Francaise

Synopsis: Lucile Angellier (Michelle Williams) is a young woman living with her controlling mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) in the provincial town of Bussy. Not far away, Paris has fallen and as they both await news of Lucile’s husband at the front a regiment of German soldiers is billeted in the town. The Angelier’s get Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts) an officer who is experiencing his own kind of entrapment as an instrument of the Nazi Occupation.

In a large part Suite Française sits with any number of French Nazi movies from Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) to Sarah’s Key (2010) as a meticulously well-crafted film, that with its careful recreation of the period via production design, wardrobe, art direction and so on, for all the tragedy it depicts, is nostalgic for the innocence lost under the heel of the Nazi boot. It stands out, however, for its intelligent, sympathetic treatment of its unusual subject matter, the illicit romance between a young French citizen and a German officer.

The handsome and cultured Nazi officer is in its own way a cliché, and making him a composer of classical music even more so, but to the credit of director Saul Dibb and co-writer Matt Charman (who wrote the recently released Bridge of Spies) the relationship between the Bruno and Lucile is handled with believable emotional complexity with Lucile, who we find out is effectively in an arranged marriage with a man she barely knows,emotionally swayed by Bruno’s cultured charm. Williams is particularly strong at the epicentre of story as the lonely, estranged and vulnerable young woman but Schoenaerts is also effective as her opposite number.  In a way it is a pity to see Scott Thomas (who starred in Sarah’s Key) as she ages increasingly play stern older women but she has a winning card here as Madame Angellier senior whose apparent cold exterior hides an unexpected well of compassion.

Although a top-drawer recreation of war-time provincial France (the film was shot in Belgium) and particularly given our familiarity with similar French productions, as a British production it is somewhat anomalous to hear all the characters speaking English as a direct, albeit class-modulated, equivalent of the French language (exchanges between the Germans are left in their mother tongue). It has a slightly disconcerting effect but Suite Française is strong enough in other respects to make it worth accommodating.

FYI: As the end titles briefly tells us, the film was based on the writings of the Ukrainian-Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky who fled Paris in 1940, relocated to Issy-l’Evêque in Burgundy, where she began work on a planned five-part tale of war and peace. But Némirovsky died aged 39 in Auschwitz in 1942, her notebooks eventually finding their way to her daughters Denise and Elisabeth, who believed them to be diaries. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Denise discovered that they were the first two instalments of Némirovsky’s unfinished work that were eventually published under the umbrella title "Suite Française" in 2004.




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