Suite Francaise

Director: Saul Dibb (2015)

This World War II drama about star-crossed music lovers is handsomely orchestrated but suffers tone deaf storytelling,

When a married French woman falls for a German officer, she has to decide between the love of her life and the love of her country.

There’s some decent acting and a lovely period feel but it’s ruined by the unconvincing romance, unsympathetic characters, a pointless voice over and simplistic dialogue.

It is based on the novel written in secret during the war by Irène Némirovsky. Though she perished in Auschwitz the manuscript was recovered by her daughter and eventually published in 2004.

Filmed on location in Marville, the picturesque town is complemented by the richly authentic production design of Michael Carlin and captured by the graceful cinematography of Eduard Grau. Editor Chris Dickens brings welcome injections of energy.

Lucille (Michelle Williams) is an insipid soul who’s peeved at her sour-faced mother-in-law Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas) for locking shut her precious piano.

With Lucille’s husband Gaston missing in action, the women share a large house and occupy themselves collecting rent from tenant farmers.

Their privileged if unhappy rural existence is transformed when the German Wehrmacht roll into town.

They’re mostly a benign presence, lacking the SS Nazi zeal for shootings, beatings, floggings or rapes.

When not standing around the square flirting, the squaddies consign themselves to skinny dipping and getting drunk in a nearby chateau.

Meanwhile the locals are busy posting anonymous hate-mail about each other to the Germans in order to curry favour. The officer charged with investigating their contents is good Lieutenant Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts).

Billeted with Lucille and Madame Angellier, not only is he a strapping young man but he plays piano beautifully. He even composes his own music. Swoon.

Bad Lieutenant Bonnet (Tom Schilling) fancies Lucille’s friend Madeleine (Ruth Wilson) and insults her husband Benoit (Sam Riley).

Bonnet quotes Nietzsche to underscore how nasty he is. It’s amazing he’s not goose-stepping to Wagner while he does it.

As soon as we see impoverished farmer’s daughter Celine (Margot Robbie) sporting silk stockings, we know how her storyline will unfold. Even before the German’s invade.

The rest of the French give cheese-eating surrender monkeys a bad name. They’re solicitous, duplicitous, hypocritical liars and collaborators; seeing the war as an opportunity to betray, cheat and exploit one another.

I was reminded of Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski when he remarks: ‘say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.’ The French portrayed here have barely a scruple between them.

Handing over an arsenal of weapons without a murmur, resistance amounts to throwing uniforms up a tree. It’s a wonder the Germans need to deploy quite so many troops.

As soon as Bruno unlocks the piano and tinkles the ivories, Lucille is all a quiver with barely concealed passion.

But other than being the nearest port in a storm it’s a wonder what he sees in her. She’s prettily vacant and is miffed by having calloused hands when forced to carry her own shopping. Doesn’t she know there’s a war on?

By the time Lucille and Bruno come to acknowledge their passion, half the town’s women have been at it with the invaders – so it doesn’t seem much of a transgression.

Plus Lucille absolves herself of guilt when an anonymous letter accuses her husband of infidelity; an accusation she’s astonishingly blase about accepting.

When they end up hiding in the hydrangeas from Madame Angellier, its too much effort not to snigger.

As townsfolk seek to exploit her blossoming relationship with the Lieutenant, half of them congratulate her for bravery, the other half condemn her as a collaborator.

Well one person does. We’re simply told by the persistent and annoying voice over what everyone thinks.

When Benoit is betrayed and goes on the run, Lucille has to decide where her loyalties lie.

Eventually the Germans start shooting but they’re so ineffectual it’s amazing they managed to blunder into Paris at all. Executing a door-to-door search they scare some nuns and frighten a few chickens.

While this is going on Bruno finds time to apologise to Lucille for breaking off their date. It’s Bridget Jones: The War Years – but without the laughs.

☆☆☆

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