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From the director of The Duchess Saul Dibb, and having a cast of top thespians, the adaptation of Suite Française is a highly lavish historical drama that at times suffers from a sluggish pace.
In June 1940, Paris has fallen and refugees flee to the countryside to escape the advancing Wehrmacht. In the town of Bussy in Central France, Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams) is a woman who lives with her dominating mother-in-law and harsh local landowner, Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas). When the Germans arrive, the Angelliers are forced to take in a German officer, Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts). Despite Lucille’s marriage and her mother-in-law’s warnings Lucille and Bruno have a connection and develop a friendship. The towns people ask Lucille for help using her privileged position with Bruno, with people seeing her as a hero or a collaborator.
Suite Française‘s greatest feature is its cast. Williams, Scott Thomas, Schoenaerts, Sam Riley and Ruth Wilson just to name a few. It is a cast most directors would dream to work with. Kristin Scott Thomas was on top form as the matriarch of the Angellier household, a snob, an opportunist and revels in her position. She is a cruel mistress, but she slowly softens and makes the character more human due to her patriotism, her determination and love for her son. Scott Thomas makes it look effortless as she brings out depth of character. It’s the type of role she can play in her sleep.
Williams and Schoenaerts are strong as the leads and perform good English accents, despite the fact the movie is set in France. Both are professionals and convincing together as they Lucille battles her urges and share their love of the piano and music. Lucille is a character who ends up being the focal point for the town peoples as a way to resolve issues. Schoenaerts plays Bruno (the first in a series of historical roles for him) as a professional officer who is simply doing his duty and the storyline of Bruno and Lucille’s relationship echoes a similar story in the Dutch movie Black Book, showing a more complex picture of good and bad people on both sides.
Though Suite Française is centered around the relationship between Lucille and Bruno, it aims to be a story about life under occupation and has many subplots throughout. Already mentioned is Madame Angellier’s using the refugees coming to the countryside to make money and many people are displaced because of the arriving refugees and the German soldiers. Other themes that are touched include the town being void of men, most of them signing up to defend their country and all that is left are women, children, the elderly and injured. This leads to issues like the local women falling for German soldiers, highlighted by Margot Robbie‘s character. Lambert Wilson plays the Viscount of the town who collaborates with the German administration and uses it for his own selfish means. Another issue raised is people using the German occupiers to settle scores with other people, claiming citizens are communists, Jewish or anything else and the Germans gather dirt on the citizens, such as their sexual habits. These themes are more interesting than its central love story and this is when the pacing for the movie picks up compared to the slower nature of the romance.
Sam Riley and Ruth Wilson play the farming couple Benoit and Madeleine. Benoit is one of the few men of service age in the town due to his limp that prevent him from fighting despite his desire to do so. Benoit aims to resist and has to battle a junior officer played by Tom Schilling, another character who enjoys power and antagonizes the farmer because of his injury while aiming to sleep with his wife.
Like The Duchess, Suite Française is a fantastic looking movie. The town of Marville in North-East France serves as Bussy and it looked like a very picturesque French town, having a large square, colorful buildings, large homes, acres of farm land and the forest outside the town. The cinematography by Eduard Grau is brightly lit, using the summer sunshine to its fullest and gives the movie a picture postcard look. Dibb reunites with costume designer Michael O’Conner and as with their work on The Duchess, Suite Française‘s costumes are of a high standard.
Because Suite Française is a movie about occupation it’s very light on action. The movie does have a solid sequence at the beginning where Stuka dive bombers attack a train before turning on the refugees. But Dibb’s inexperience with action is noticeable when showing German soldiers performing raids and home searches with the camera going all shaky: it is distracting and does not fit with the rest of the cinematography.
Suite Française is a great looking movie and there it is hard to criticize the technical acumen. But a drawback of the visions is that they are a bit too perfect and despite the Nazi soldiers, looks like a nice place to visit. The themes of seeing the war through the eyes of a small community is reminiscent to another literary adaptation, The Book Thief, juxtaposing the pleasant visions with themes and the backdrop of the war. It is a movie with many subplots during its 107 minute running time and some are underplayed, like Robbie’s affairs with a German soldier.
The movie has people speaking in English when they are meant to be speaking in French, which in itself is not a major issue – unless you are French, then I understand your frustration. But one strange choice is playing France’s surrender declaration in French, which leads to the issue either do the movie in English or French, you cannot do both.
The story behind Suite Française‘s publication would serve as a remarkable movie in its own right. It was written by Irène Némirovsky, French Jewish author, who was unable to complete the novel and died in Auschwitz . It was published in 2004 where it became a international bestseller.
Suite Française is a beautiful looking movie with great production values and ambitions to be a prestige film. As a story about a town under occupation Suite Française is a interesting historical drama. It has a great cast but its slower moments and the romance where the adaptation falters.