BBC Films have turned Irene Nemirovsky’s WW2 novel Suite Francaise into a handsome and entertaining love story, with a memorable turn by Kristin Scott Thomas and beautiful French scenery, but fans of the book will be disappointed by its lack of depth.
The film starts with news footage of the fall of Paris to the Nazis in June 1940. One week later we are in Bussy, a village in central France, where Lucille (Michelle Williams) is fighting her own domestic war against her tyrannical mother-in-law, Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas), while her soldier husband is away fighting. When the German army marches into Bussy, a German officer is billeted to their grand house. Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts) is sensitive and honourable – a composer who plays his own pieces on their piano. Lucille and Bruno are drawn to each other; they have much in common and she feels ‘relief in his presence after months of silence.’
Purse-lipped Madame does not approve. Amidst some rather dreary performances from the mostly British cast, Kristin Scott Thomas’s mother-in-law steals the show. She looks like Madonna playing Cruella de Vil, and ‘could easily scare the plague away,’ as Bruno comments.
Director and co-writer Saul Dibb has attempted to bring to life the book’s finely observed picture of occupiers and occupied relating to each other, but his lead actors struggle to make it fly. In Nemirovsky’s novel the Germans gradually become individuals to the villagers and the author invests the invaders with humanity. The brooding and melancholy tone of Suite Francaise is sacrificed for the movie’s dramatic shortcuts and invented scenes. The nuances of personal lives and fates of the book do not survive the screen version, in which Benoit (Sam Riley) the Resistance fighter is brought into the foreground. So we get motorbike escapades, a la Great Escape and checkpoint shoot-outs.
It is all entertaining enough, and the village itself is a great tourist advertisement for unspoilt France, but the overall effect is somewhat flat. The rationale for having a foreign cast was apparently something to do with hearing the discernible class distinction in the British accents. But this didn’t really work for me. French actors would have better understood the history of occupation in World War Two in their own homeland, particularly the toxic subject of collaboration with the enemy. Bruno reads letters from the villagers denouncing each other as criminals or ‘dirty Jews’, but the desperation of neighbours turning on each other is not convincingly dramatized. The film feels a bit too much like a Sunday evening BBC costume drama.
The story behind the publication of Suite Francaise is summarised at the end of the film, and would, perhaps, have made for a more compelling drama than what we have just seen. Jewish author Irene Nemirovsky died at Auschwitz in 1942, aged 39. Before she was taken from her two children, she entrusted Denise (13) with a suitcase which contained family photographs, diaries and a thick leather binder. For the rest of the war Denise guarded the suitcase preciously, as she and her five year old sister Elisabeth were hunted across France by the Germans and the French military police.
It wasn’t until 30 years later that Denise eventually opened it, discovering that the binder contained a manuscript of two novels of a planned five-volume epic. It took her nearly two decades to decipher and transcribe her mother’s miniscule handwriting on onion skin-thin paper. Suite Francaise was eventually published in France in 2004 to wide acclaim, hailed by critics as a major literary discovery, the ‘definitive novel’ of France during the Second World War, and compared to the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.