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New Release Review - Suite Francaise

A rural French village falls under Nazi occupation.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Saul Dibb

Starring: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenarts, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie, Sam Riley




In 2004, two novels were published in a single volume under the title Suite Francaise. The novels had been discovered in a journal belonging to Irène Némirovsky, a French Jew who wrote about the experience of living under Nazi occupation in wartime. Five books were planned but sadly Némirovsky was murdered in Auschwitz before she could begin work on the third novel. Unable to bring herself to read the journal for 50 years, Némirovsky's daughter eventually plucked up the nerve to open her mother's notebook, and the rest is literary history.
Director Saul Dibb's movie is an adaptation of Dolce, the second of the two completed novels, and tells the tale of a small village in rural France that finds itself under Nazi occupation in 1940. Michelle Williams is Lucille Angellier, whose husband left to fight for France and may or may not be dead or imprisoned. She lives with her mother-in-law Madame Angellier (Scott-Thomas), a wealthy landowner despised by most of her poor tenants. When the Nazis roll into town, Commander Bruno von Falk (Schoenarts) is assigned to stay at the Angellier's home, much to the displeasure of the patriotic Madame Angellier. Initially Bruno and Lucille bond over a shared love of music, but soon their relationship turns physical.
While this controversial affair forms the centrepiece of Suite Francaise's drama, it's the background activity that proves most interesting. Before the arrival of the Nazis, all is far from idyll in the village, with class tensions running rife. The divide is widened when the middle class inhabitants roll over for the occupying forces, while the poorer members of the community find themselves struggling to survive, with most of the village's food being proffered to the Germans, who also throw their weight around to take advantage of the town's working class women.
It seems odd that such a distinctly French story should be brought to the screen by British filmmakers, but this is a chapter of history many in France would rather pretend never happened. There's little in the way of community spirit among the inhabitants of this village, who are more than willing to sacrifice their neighbours to save their own skins. Even the Nazis are repelled by their cowardice, mocking the men of the village for avoiding conflict while Bruno winces at the numerous letters he receives from villagers selling out their townsfolk as communists and Jews. If there's a hero in this tale, it comes in the unlikely form of Madame Angellier, who initially seems the film's most unlikeable character but ultimately takes great risks to protect her tenants.
Despite the best efforts of Williams and Schoenarts, the film never quite sells their relationship, but the broader story at play here is intriguing enough to cover those cracks. It may be marketed as a polite wartime romance, but Suite Francaise is a much grittier beast, a story seething with the coiled rage of an emasculated people.





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