Reviewed by ciara forristal
Based on Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously published novel of the same name, Suite Francaise revolves around the German occupation of the small French town of Bussy in the summer of 1940. With her husband contributing to the war effort, Free-spirited Lucille (Michelle Williams) is confined to the stifling atmosphere of life under the roof of her domineering mother-in-law and powerful landowner Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas). This tension is exacerbated following the German occupation of the town which results in a high-ranking German officer, Lieutenant Bruno Von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts) being forcibly billeted with the Angellier women. Whilst stoicism indeed works for Madame Angellier in her endurance of the present situation, the same cannot be said for Lucille who becomes drawn to Bruno’s sensitive manner as his sojourn in the house progresses. Like Polanski’s The Pianist, the bonds between persecutor and persecuted, captor and captive, are transgressed through their mutual passion for music, highlighting the possibility of humanity to exist on both sides of the divide. Entranced by the music played by Bruno every night, Lucille slowly builds up the intimacy of their connection through fragmented sheet music clandestinely transmitted to one another in coat pockets and other hiding places.
However, whilst it is the war that brings them together, it ultimately will play a role in driving them apart. The slow-burning romance of Bruno and Lucille is punctuated by looks into the lives of various inhabitants on all socio-economic levels, the interconnectedness of which will inadvertently reflect the humanity and inhumanity within people, regardless of nationality or political allegiance. The most interesting of these asides is that of Benoit (Sam Riley) and Madeleine (Ruth Wilson), a proletarian couple who remain defiant against the German regime, particularly in relation to the sexually forward German soldier billeted with them. Whilst both Lucille and Bruno are ultimately forced to choose between their duty to their country and their love for one another as one is want to do when engaging in a wartime romance, the grounded performances of Williams and Schoenaerts prevent the film from reaching potentially ruinous histrionics. Williams, with her waif-like physique gives a strong performance as a young woman of steady resolve and deep compassion, whilst Schoenaerts is equally effective with his brooding demeanour and silent reserve. Both bring nuance to characters who communicate through stolen glances and furtive facial expressions.
Director Saul Dibb’s film is an interesting combination of realism and cinematic aestheticism, successfully managing to fluctuate between the depiction of the harsh reality of life under Nazi occupation and the poignancy of a fragile intimacy, without descending into melodrama.