Review: Suite Française

Irène Némirovsky’s unfinished novel Suite Française became a posthumous bestseller in 2004, with the film rights being bought two years later. The Duchess filmmaker Saul Dibb takes directing and screenwriting duties for this lavish period romance starring Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas and Matthias Schoenaerts.

Set in Nazi occupied France, we see Lucille Angellier (Williams) and her domineering mother-in-law (Thomas) tasked with housing Nazi lieutenant Bruno von Falk (Schoenaerts). Despite attempting to ignore Bruno, Lucille soon finds herself being drawn to the charismatic officer and developing romantic feelings.

Suite Française has the look of a typically charming period project from the BBC – with the rural beauty of the small town of Bussy to the delicate, occasionally sweeping musical soundtrack from Rael Jones. However, Dibb’s film is one filled with unease, paranoia and a showcase to the horrors of war (especially in occupied Europe), with a simple love story set atop and complicated by this wartime canvas.

Scenes of German bombers attacking Parisian refugees seeking shelter in Bussy, trains attacked by the Luftwaffe, and executions taking place in the otherwise peaceful town centre, all serve in painting a picture of occupied France and crafting a sense of wartime tensions. Given the treatment of the French people, it is understandable that Lucille and Madame Angellier would not want any contact with their lodging Nazi officer – making this brooding and risky relationship all the more fascinating to watch. With heartfelt characters and a deeply human love that surpasses nationality and wartime convention, Némirovsky’s story of a love that can never be is undeniably tragic.

Dibb does excellently at breaking these characters down to a human level, particularly Schoenaerts’s multi-textured role of Bruno. The charismatic officer lacks much in common with his cruel colleagues, yet is still willing follows out the harshest orders requested by his superiors – despite these driving him further from the woman he grows to love. Lucille on the other hand, is charmed, thrilled, and horrified at the prospect of romancing the occupying soldier – but Williams and Schoenaerts are so convincing that the love between these two feels consistently authentic and always conflicting. There’s a deep sorrow pulsing throughout Suite Française, as as viewers we know this is a love that has no chance from the onset thanks to its harrowing wartime circumstance.

As well as praise to the magnificent performances of Williams and Schoenaerts, credit should go to Kristin Scott Thomas’s standout appearance as Madame Angellier. There’s a steely matriarchal authority in her performance, completely fitting with the narrative setting. Yet several events in the latter half of the film reveal an endearing human side beneath this sharp exterior.

The unfinished nature of Némirovsky’s original text feels apparent with the concluding scenes of Suite Française feel somewhat abrupt and unfulfilling. This is perhaps a move that works in the film’s favour, reflecting the sporadic nature of war and ending the story of unconsummated love, in a swift and incomplete fashion.

Suite Française is an emotionally-taut watch that presents a love story as heart-wrenching as its period setting. Magnificent performances from Williams, Thomas, and Schoenaerts, as well as concisely emotive direction from Dibb ensure this is a consistently engaging watch.

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