Suite Française has a fascinating history. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Irène Némirovsky, a French (and also Jewish) writer. Suite Française was originally intended to be a series of five novels, but Némirovsky was only able to complete the first two because she was arrested for being a Jew in 1942 and eventually died tragically in Auschwitz. The novels (written in a notebook) weren’t discovered until 1998 by her daughter Denise who had assumed they were diary entries (and therefore too painful to read). After examining the notebook for the first time, Némirovsky’s daughter had Suite Française published posthumously in 2004 as a single volume. Knowing this, the story then becomes all the more poignant when you realize it was written at the same period Suite Française takes place and from an author whose work was lost. The film, however, only focuses on one section of the novels.
Suite Française tells the story of Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams), a Frenchwoman living with her controlling mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) at the start of Nazi-occupied France. Lucille’s husband is fighting the war while they wait for news at home. Living out in the country, the Nazis haven’t as yet occupied their town. However, that soon changes when a regiment of German soldiers arrives and takes over the village. The officers and soldiers move into the homes of the French people. Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts), a German officer, moves into the house with Lucille and her mother-in-law, Madame Angellier.
Bruno, unlike the other officers, is gentlemanly and kind. Bruno even brings with him a dog who he treats affectionately. Rather than being domineering in the household, he tries to be respectful. And much to Lucille’s surprise, she discovers that Bruno is a talented musician and an actual composer. Lucille, also a musician, finds herself drawn to Bruno as he composes her music – especially as she discovers that her husband isn’t who she thought he was. Soon, a forbidden love story unfolds as this Nazi officer and a Frenchwoman fall in love. But as tensions run high in the village, will their differences only tear them apart? Or will he risk everything to help the woman he loves when she finds herself in trouble?
Suite Française is an unusual love story, but a compelling one. The film has a beautifully written script with strong directing from Saul Dibb and fantastic performances from its all-star cast. Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ruth Wilson and Margot Robbie all play their parts to perfection. Every character is real rather than caricatures (which would have been easy to do with Nazi soldiers in the mix). I was particularly impressed with Matthias Schoenaerts, who played Bruno with a level of charisma and honesty I found convincing. The more I see of him in cinema, the more impressed I get with his body of work.
Besides the love story, there are also many interesting subplots. A farmer named Benoit and his wife Madeleine (played by Sam Riley and Ruth Wilson) live with a violent and horrible young Nazi who wants to take the wife for himself. Benoit fights back which leads to tragic circumstances. Then there’s the Jewish woman and her daughter who face being discovered as well as the women in the village who have affairs with the Nazi soldiers because there’re no other men around. Surprisingly (which makes you wonder if this really happened), many of the women in the village are actually welcoming of the Nazis. They have affairs with them, not realizing that despite being sweet young men when they are alone are still rather brutal when working. A terrible mistake a few women make – particularly Celine (Margot Robbie), a naïve young woman who falls for a German soldier (who isn’t actually as tender-hearted as Bruno).
Overall, Suite Française perfectly encapsulates the time period it is set. You feel like you are there, peeking in on a time and place little known to us. It’s a different look at Nazi-occupied France, and from the original perspective of a Jewish woman who lived in France at the time and wrote a fictional story about it. Plus, the love story is a unique and strong romance you won’t soon forget. It’s a shame the series of novels were never finished due to the tragic and horrible death of the author in a concentration camp. Still, Némirovsky’s stories and characters will continue to live on.
Suite Française is available on DVD, though is harder to get a copy in the U.S. (it is still possible, especially if you have a multi-region DVD Player). So if you can find a way to watch, it’s worth checking out.
CONTENT NOTE: The film is Rated R with a couple of sex scenes and a few moments of brief strong language.
Photos: The Weinstein Company/Entertainment One
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