WRITTEN REVIEW – Suite Française (2015)
Directed by: Saul Dibb
Written by: Saul Dibb & Matt Charman
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sam Riley & Ruth Wilson
Music: Rael Jones
Release Date: March 13th 2015
The build up to the film adaptation ‘Suite Française‘ has been less centred on the film itself and more along the circumstances of its source material. Written by German novelist Irène Némirovsky, ‘Suite Française‘, the novel started as a story of what life was like in France shortly after the Nazi invasion in World War 2. However, after only completing 2 of the 5 volumes, Némirovsky was arrested in 1942 for being Jewish and died in Auschwitz concentration camp, leaving the manuscript unfinished and unread for over 50 years. The unfinished work was found by Irène’s eldest daughter, Denise Epstein, and was published in 2004 where it became a bestseller as well as being the first ever posthumous winner of the French Prix Renaudot.
With a backstory like that, it’s no wonder that the film adaptation itself, directed by ‘The Duchess‘ director, Saul Dibb, and co-written by first time screenwriter Matt Charman (who wrote the initial draft of the upcoming Spielberg Cold War Thriller ‘Bridge of Spies‘), has flown under the radar slightly. But on Mother’s Day weekend, EOne (the distributor of ‘Suite Française‘) are counting on viewers taking their mother’s to see this World War 2 fictional romance so the movie itself will need to deliver. Thankfully, ‘Suite Française‘ does deliver in the romance and while it’s not entirely successful, it’s one of the better romance films in recent memory.
Set in France in 1940, the Nazi forces are making their way across Europe and eventually occupy France. ‘Suite Française‘ takes place during the early days of the occupation in a small rural town just outside of Paris as refugees from the city as well as German soldiers descend on the peaceful town. ‘Suite Française‘ is akin to an anthology series with it focusing on isolated members of the town, though the focus is primarily on Lucile (Williams) and her mother in-law, Angellier (Thomas) who are the local landlords and as part of the Nazi regime, they must make room in their house for a German Commander; Bruno (Schoenaerts). But a reluctant romance begins to bloom between Lucile and Bruno.
The strongest factor at play in ‘Suite Française‘ is the idea of community. While the marketing has primarily focused on the Lucile and Bruno romance (understandably as it takes up around 60-70% of the movie) there are other stories happening in the background of the narrative that revolve around the themes of gossip and casual backstabbing. The idyllic town (named Bussy in the original novel but I can’t recall its name in the movie. Sorry about that) may seem like a setting in a romance novel, but even before the German’s arrive there are mean-spirited rumours and a wealth-gap in the early days of a war that’s affecting the whole country. Most of the men have left the town to fight in the war, including Lucile’s husband, leaving behind wives, children and the elderly who cannot take a stand against the dominant German soldiers.
The central romance story is well done with the obvious reluctance from Lucile at first due to her marriage and, y’know, the whole NAZI thing, the two start to share common ground with their love of music and the fact that Bruno isn’t like the other German’s in the town. While the movie does try to paint Bruno in a positive light in the fact that he was a composer before the war and only joined because it was expected of him by his family as well as the fact that out of all the German’s in the town he is (by far) the most likeable and compassionate, the fact that Nazis have been the go-to villains in media for around 70 years is too big a hurdle for the romance to overcome for the viewer. Yes, Bruno is a handsome, kind-hearted and romantic person in a bad situation…but he’s also a Nazi.
Although, to his credit, Bruno is a far more likeable character than Christian Grey.
But Williams and Schoenaerts show a lot of chemistry together on screen and the romance feels authentic and natural for the two characters despite their current situation and happenstance keeping them both at arms length from each other. Kristen Scott Thomas does a good job as the mother-in-law, though her character does feel rather one-dimensional. But it’s thanks to Thomas that she’s able to be an engaging screen presence despite Madame Angellier being rather one-dimensional on the page.
So the lead trio of characters make for engaging viewing, but the real strength of the movie comes from the brilliant supporting cast members who portray characters currently undergoing their own stories and hardships. Whether it’s the occasional women whose husbands have left to fight in the war and use the German soldiers to satisfy their…”needs” (for lack of a better term), to the mother hiding the fact that she’s Jewish and teaching her daughter the recorder, the local farmers – the husband of which cannot go to war due to an injured leg while trying to protect his wife from a sexually aggressive German Soldier and there’s also the Mayor of his town who has had his authority taken from his by the new regime.
There’s a lot of very compelling stories here and, for me at least, they were the very lifeblood of ‘Suite Française‘ and the most interesting part of the movie. It’s just a shame that these sub-plots do fall to the wayside in favour of the love-story which, while still very well done, happens to be the least compelling story of the bunch.
I know I make a habit of saying “Review the movie you’ve got. Not the movie you want”, but allow me to divulge for a moment. If ‘Suite Française‘ had been a true anthology movie, focusing on 10-15 minute short stories, maybe with the framework of the romance plot where all the stories intersect, then ‘Suite Française‘ could have been something genuinely special and also very unique as these other stories do brush against the edges of the romance, making it an ideal scenario to base a movie around. Instead, what we’ve got is a movie where a sub-plot is introduced and just when it’s starting to get legitimately compelling, we’re taken to the decent, though slightly underwhelming (by comparison), romance story and the audience are reminded as to where their priorities should be.
Instead of seeing whether or not Lucile or Bruno would get together, I was more interested in Benoit and Madeleine’s marriage finding resistance with the inclusion of an amorous German Soldier. I wanted to know more about the Jewish mother and her musically gifted daughter. I wanted to see the relationship between the Mayor and his wife feel more fleshed out. I’m incredibly grateful that we got to see these great stories be included at all, especially with very talented actors playing them, but to have them make up the set-dressing of the film when the main focus is on the love story feels like a wasted opportunity. One of the best scenes of the movie is when the Mayor of the town is about to be executed and he has a final meal with his wife and the performances are absolutely terrific. You can see the unspoken love the two stoic characters have for each other despite there not being much dialogue in the scene. But the scene comes and goes very quickly and then we’re back to the love story. ‘Suite Française‘ is not a long movie (especially for a period romance film) at 107 minutes so slower scenes like this could have been given more emphasis with a longer cut of the film.
Now, it sounds like I hate the movie, but I really don’t (you probably already knew that if you do what most people do on review websites and look at the score at the bottom of the page before reading the review itself). As it stands right now, ‘Suite Française‘ is a great movie that with a bit more ambition could have been a legitimate classic in the genre. The potential romance found in World War 2 isn’t an area of film that is regularly divulged (in 2014, there were around 8 or 9 movies based around World War 2. None of them focused on romance, save for ‘The Imitation Game‘ where it amounted to a sub-plot between Alan and Joan) so ‘Suite Française‘ does a lot to stand out in a very crowded sub-genre and it does a great job at portraying the side of war where there are no battles, but focuses on the people left behind.
The movie effectively draws the viewer into World War 2 with great attention to detail such as the German’s arriving in the town and the first thing they do is change all of the clocks so the soldiers are living by German-time. And while the movie is balancing a lot of sub-plots, the movie never feels scatter-shot giving the indication that the movie does a great job at handling what it’s got. I just wish there was more of it.
It’s tough to fault the production design, however. The movie has a $20 million budget which is quite large for a European-made movie and the craftsmanship is up on screen. The sets, costumes, locations and props feel authentic and there’s not much to say other than the fact that the movie does immerse the viewers into 1940s France. The music by Rael Jones is great and while he’s made a name for himself providing additional music for many films (and TV shows such as ‘Doctor Who‘ and ‘Sherlock‘), ‘Suite Française‘ demonstrates that he should take the reigns on a full movie score more often. Though the sound mixing is strange in that the music alternates between the piano score and the characters ACTUALLY playing the piano. It’s occasionally distracting as you’re trying to distinguish whether or not the characters are aware of the music or if it’s part of the score. But that’s a minor quibble.
The cinematography is well done, with the camera fawning over the lavish sets and production design and even the few moments of gore are very well done with effective make-up. One of the opening scenes depicting a bombing run on weary refugees trying to flee Paris is a great way to set the brutal tone of the movie as well as adding some stark realism to the almost fairytale-esque love story. Also, the fact that it was filmed on 35mm adds to the feel of the movie in allowing the viewer to get absorbed in the time period.
‘Suite Française‘ is a very strong romance movie and its supporting cast and themes of romance, wartime and the value of community shine brightly in what could have easily turned out as a saccharine and schmaltzy romance movie. It’s disappointing that with so many interesting players in the story that the film primarily focuses on the least interesting of them, but even then the main romance is still very well done and better than most romances nowadays. It has great production values for its budget and some great stand-out moments, a few of which you can guarantee will be on my “best moments of 2015” list when all is said and done. Personally, I would love to see this cast and creative team re-group and create a 5 or 6 part TV series based around this French town in 1940 to realise the potential that’s tapped into here, but that probably won’t happen.
The movie’s not particularly groundbreaking, but it’s more than adequate and a reminder that while World War 2 had some of humanity’s darkest days on the battlefield, there were people who were left at home with their own compelling and dramatic stories to tell.
I give ‘Suite Française‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 23rd Mar 15