Irène Némirovsky, born in Kiev into a wealthy Jewish family, became a successful novelist in France in the 1930s, but moved from Paris in 1940, during the German occupation, to a small French village where she began writing a large-scale novel, Suite Franҫaise. She died in Auschwitz in 1942, but some 60 years later her incomplete manuscript was discovered, published and became a global best-seller.
Her story is arguably more remarkable than the novel itself, part of which has now been adapted for film. Clearly inspired by her life, the film is set in a French village named Bussy, and begins around the time the German Army marches in.
The central character is a young French wife, Lucile (Michele Williams), who is living less than happily with her haughty, strict mother-in-law Madame Angellier, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Lucile’s new husband is a French soldier (Madame’s son) who is away fighting for the Allies – though their marriage is gradually revealed as convenient rather than blissful.
Madame’s already dark mood worsens with the arrival of the Nazis. “If you want to know what people are made of, start a war,” she snaps. And then her worst nightmare happens; each house in the village will be occupied by at least one German soldier.
Yet the German officer billeted with them defies expectations: Lieutenant Bruno von Falk is suave, kindly and cultured. He admits to Lucile his unease with his invading countrymen’s behaviour; she in turn starts to develop feelings for him. How could she not? Bruno even composes short musical pieces, which he plays delicately on Madame’s piano; one of these gives the story its name. It also doesn’t hurt that Bruno is played by the excellent Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who happens to be devilishly handsome into the bargain. If you were looking around to cast a sensitive Nazi, he would be your man.
Suite Franҫaise starts admirably – the journey from Paris to Bussy for bedraggled refugees is skilfully executed, and British director Saul Dibb, whose last film The Duchess was a superior costume drama, takes full advantage of a decent budget to do justice to these scenes. There are enough characters in the village to round out the drama: its loyal mayor (Lambert Wilson), and a fiercely resistant local working-class couple, ably played by British actors Sam Riley and Ruth Wilson.
Still, the romance between Lucile and Bruno, which drives the story, feels lop-sided. Michele Williams is a fine actress, but isn’t given much to do here: Lucile seems a bland, respectable young woman with a crush on her lodger she must hide from her mother-in-law. And that’s about it; she isn’t given a chance to show us more hidden depths. Schoenaerts, in contrast, gets to play a multi-faceted character: smart, decisive, yet conflicted, a decent man trapped in a war for which he feels no enthusiasm.
It’s handsomely mounted, and looks authentic; the estimable costume designer Michael O’Connor has done a fine job (as he did on The Duchess), and Suite Franҫaise is a sincere, even heartfelt production.
Yet there’s something here that might make many of us feel uneasy: the role of the ‘nice Nazi.’ Obviously not every German soldier in that war was cruel and insensitive; but Bruno von Falk seems almost too perfect to be true. And we’re being asked to buy the idea that Lucile’s affection for him is of paramount importance – far more so than the awful events unfolding outside the household.
Kristin Scott Thomas is an unwitting victim of this uneasy dramatic construction: as an audience, we’re virtually invited to hiss and boo each time she enters a scene, because she disapproves of Bruno’s presence. Simply put, she’s an obstacle to the love story. But in truth, what’s the worst we can really say about Madame Angellier? That she’s dead set against collaborating with the Nazis. And you’d have to say: in retrospect, history places her on the side of the angels.
Watch this exclusive clip of Suite Franҫaise.