‘Suite Francaise’: Film Review

Suite Francaise Michelle Williams H 2013
Middlebrow tastefulness up the wazoo but barely any soul

The screen version of Irene Nemirovsky’s posthumously published, unfinished novel of life in France during WWII stars Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas and Matthias Schoenaerts

Michelle Williams stars as a bourgeois Frenchwoman who falls in love with a Nazi officer (Matthias Schoenaerts) during the Occupation in the long-awaited but soapy and numbingly flat Suite Francaise. Based on the second part of Holocaust victim Irene Nemirovsky's unfinished novel, which became an acclaimed worldwide bestseller in 2004, this filleting by writer-director Saul Dibb (The Duchess, TV series The Line of Beauty), co-written by Matt Charman and completed in 2014, has sturdy production values, a tony cast and middlebrow tastefulness up the wazoo, but barely any soul, bite or genuine passion.

Fans of the book will feel frustrated that the adaptation has shed so much from the source material to concentrate on its most melodramatic plot line, while newcomers unaware of the literary pedigree and the book's fascinating backstory will wonder what all the fuss is about. Still, if marketing and publicity can manage to reach right kind of upmarket viewers, this could perform respectably after its release in the U.K. on March 13. No date has yet been set for US release by the Weinstein Company.

Grandiose claims have been made for Nemirovsky's last work, which has ambition, historical significance, some very moving passages and a lively prose style. Had it been finished, it may have been a great literary achievement. But what survived is a work-in-progress that was only partially complete when Nemirovsky, a Jew, was arrested in 1942 and taken away to Auschwitz, where she died. The manuscript, kept by her children, remained unread for 60 years. Her journal revealed plans to revise storylines, and even as the closing credits of the film unfurl against pages from the original manuscript, it’s clear from the annotations that this was only a first draft.

It’s worth stressing that this book is ultimately a poignant fragment because that moving backstory is one of the integral reasons why Suite Francaise is so compelling. Many might have expected the filmmakers to have done more with that context than simply put up the obligatory explanatory epilogue at the end about the author's death. If ever there was a book crying out for a proper, multi-part serialization, with a docudrama framing device focusing on the fascinating and complicated writer herself (who has been accused by some modern scholars of being a Fascist sympathizer), this is it. Presumably, the budget couldn’t be found to do the adaptation on the sprawling scale the material deserves, which would explain why this 107-minute work, glossy-looking though it is, feels like a meager portion left over from a fuller feast.

Ditching nearly all of the events from the first part ("Storm in June") of what was going to be a five-part work, the screenplay basically revolves around the events in second installment "Dolce," set in and around Bussy, east of Paris, in the summer of 1940, immediately after the German conquest of the region.

Taking its cue from the surprisingly cinematic source material, the film starts with the percussive sound of infantry marching into town as the villagers pray in the local church. Among the worshipful are Lucille (Williams), the wife of the never-seen Gaston Angellier, a local landowner who’s languishing in a German prison camp somewhere. Their marriage had never been a happy one, and with Gaston gone Lucille only has her mother-in-law, the fearsome Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas, adding shades to a what might have been a stock character) for company. When a high-ranking German officer, Lt. Bruno Von Falk (Schoenaerts), is forcibly billeted with the Angellier woman, they stoically accept it as payback for having the nicest house in the village. However, Madame hides everything in the room so that nothing that belonged to her precious son will be sullied by the Nazi’s hands.

Unfortunately, her control doesn’t quite extend over her wayward daughter-in-law, who is drawn to Bruno once she discovers his sensitive side when he starts tinkling the ivories on the family pianoforte. Their relationship progresses by slow degrees from shared intimacies in the garden to kisses to an incomplete bout of copulation on the drawing-room console. Thanks to the electric attractiveness of the leads, two of the sexiest actors working today, these scenes have enough spark to speed up the stakes. Nevertheless, the hunky, sensitive, morally compromised Nazi soldier and his beautiful French lover have become hoary cinematic clichés in the years since Nemirovsky wrote her work, and the film can’t find a way to reinvent their liaison in a way that’s fresh but still honors the source. With a character who is so superficially passive, Williams is backed into a corner and forced to rely on lots of lip trembling while her tell-don’t-show voiceover tries to paper over the emotional cracks. 

The weaving in and out of other characters is more adept, and particularly lasting impressions are made by Sam Riley and Ruth Wilson as Gaston and Madeleine Labarie, proletarian farmers who are more overtly defiant of their German overlords, and Lambert Wilson and Harriet Walter as the local Viscount and Viscountess de Montmort, snobs brought to their knees by the crushing weight of history. Margot Robbie, hotter now than ever on the back of Focus’ success, unfortunately is wasted, though, in the underwritten part of a good-time girl who sleeps with an another officer.

Otherwise, Dibb's direction is competent in terms of period reconstitution and pacing, but entirely unexceptional. The same goes for Eduard Grau’s pretty but vapid cinematography, which uses lots of light flares and hair-product commercial backlit haloes to suggest torpid sensuality.

Production companies: A The Weinstein Company, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, Entertainment One in association with BBC Films, The Weinstein Company presentation of a TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, Entertainment One production in co-production with Scope Pictures and with the participation of Canal+
Cast:Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie, Heino Ferch, Tom Schilling, Harriet Walter, Alexandra Maria Lara, Clare Holman, Lambert Wilson
Director: Saul Dibb
Screenwriters: Saul Dibb, Matt Charman, based on a novel by Irene Nemirovsky
Producers: Xavier Marchand, Romain Bremond, Michael Kuhn, Andrea Cornwall
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Len Blavatnik
Director of photography: Eduard Grau
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Costume designer: Michael O'Connor
Editor: Christopher Dickens
Composer: Rael Jones
Casting: Dan Hubbard

No rating, 107 minutes