Turning Irène Némirovsky’s novel of French occupation into a love story across enemy lines, Saul Dibb’s Suite Française is a powerful adaptation with Hollywood ambition.
French Revolutionby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The French have been doing it for years. From Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau and Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow And The Pity to Jean-Pierre Melville’s œuvre of Le Silence de La Mer, Léon Morin, Prêtre and L’Armée des Ombres, French filmmakers have been scrutinising occupation and resistance since before the war even ended. So it’s a surprise that Irène Némirovsky’s posthumous bestseller Suite Française – written during the war but only recently discovered in a forgotten suitcase by the author’s daughter and finally published in 2004 – should be taken up by British director Saul Dibb (The Duchess and Bullet Boy). With an international cast and funding from both sides of the Atlantic, Alexandre Desplat, who provides the musical composition within the film, and Lambert Wilson, who gives a deliciously treacherous performance as the town’s conceited mayor, are left to carry the Gallic authenticity of Dibb’s adaptation. It might lack a certain French je-ne-sais-quoi, but with Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts centre-stage, as well as Némirovsky’s brilliant source material, what can possibly go wrong?
It’s 1940 and after a blitzkrieg assault by Nazi Germany, France has conceded defeat. Lucile (Michelle Williams) lives in Bussy with her mother-in-law Mme Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas), a wealthy landowner schooling Lucile in collecting rent from tenants. But this Sunday, their rounds are interrupted by a caravan of Parisians fleeing the capital. And it’s not long before the new inhabitants of Bussy are followed by German soldiers. Lieutenant Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts) is billeted to stay with Lucile and Mme Angellier (for they have the finest house in the village), and despite their vow neither to look at him nor talk to him, his sensitivity and passion for music are enough for Lucile to see the man beneath the monster. Von Falk is responsible for handling the denunciation letters handed in by the villagers, and when Lucile discovers that her husband has been carrying on with another woman for years, she’s free to follow her heart’s desire. Slowly falling for Bruno, she uses her influence to help out other villagers, but while some suspect her of collaboration and others of resistance, nobody knows her true feelings.
Nor really, do we. Which is a shame, as it’s what makes Némirovsky’s novels so delightful – her heroines’ quiet but razor-sharp observations of human nature. As a result, Lucile becomes a rather enigmatic but selfish creature – never talking of love, but exclaiming nevertheless in voiceover the overwhelming nature of her true feelings. Who can think of love in times of war? For the first half however, Dibb’s Lucile is a rather awkward observer, with Michelle Williams mooning idly at windows, the script’s voiceover enough to convey her inner turmoil, but not the sensitivity of her gaze. Williams, though underserved, is good and her journey from little girl lost to pistol-toting resistance fighter is seamless, even if her heroism is over-egged from the original. (As if driving through checkpoints and across enemy lines with a résistant hidden in your trunk wasn’t enough.) But Dibb’s Suite Française does nevertheless follow the same narrative trajectory as Némirovsky’s original, with its story of one timid young woman in her family’s shadow finally finding her inner strength.
Like Melville’s adaptation of Vercors’ similarly themed Le Silence De La Mer, Némirovsky’s Suite Française isn’t really a behind-enemy-lines romance, but rather a parable of German occupation brought inside the home, revealing a mutual tendency towards respect that manages somehow or other to forget the awkward necessities of war, until German officer Bonnet (Tom Schilling) is shot dead by Benoît (Sam Riley) and the full fury of Nazi aggression is unleashed. It’s a devastating analysis of life under occupation, as the mayor and his wife (Lambert Wilson and Harriet Walter almost steal the film in one short but stilted declaration of love) collaborate and lie to get what they want, and an erosion of social class, as both landowner and peasant come together to fight the Germans. Or at least, it should be. And in some ways, Dibb’s film is. Only Némirovsky’s Suite Française does it better.
Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Eduard Grau (A Single Man), Suite Française is a handsome affair and a solid film – pacy, well acted and engaging. Only it’s the worst kind of adaptation, taking a work of extraordinary subtlety (melodrama, yes, but even still) and applying Hollywood shortcuts; explaining Némirovksy’s musical title with a hand-written sonata and paying tribute to Némirovsky’s own story (Jewish, she was captured by the Nazis with only two of her five novels for Suite Française completed, transported to and murdered in Auschwitz) with Catholic convert Leah (Alexandra Maria Lara) arrested and her daughter hiding in Mme Angellier’s attic.
Concentrating almost entirely on Dolce, the second novel in Némirovsky’s Suite after Storm in June, Saul Dibb’s film is a love story under occupation. But just as the German invasion of Bussy sees a pastel palate of sandstone and lavender occupied by an army of green, black and grey, so too is Suite Française a simplistic elimination of nuance, turning Némirovsky’s subtly drawn characters into disappointingly monochrome Hollywood archetypes. A heavy-handed tribute to Némirovsky and her novel, Suite Française is a cautionary tale of the dangers of adaptation, bringing heart to Némirovsky’s story, but none of its soul.
Suite Française is released on 13th March 2015 in the UK and is available from 27th July 2015 on DVD and Blu-Ray