Published Jul 02, 2015Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française is often noted for the story of its posthumous publication. Némirovsky died of Typhus in Auschwitz in 1942, leaving behind an abundance of journals and diaries that her eldest daughter held onto. It wasn't until the late '90s that her daughter read these diaries — preparing to donate the materials to a French archive — and realized that it was actually a manuscript.
Saul Dibb's adaptation is respectful of the novel and its origins. It tells the story of Lucile Angellier (Michelle Williams), a young French woman living with her controlling mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) while her husband is off at war. Being the most affluent member of her community, her home is used to house Bruno van Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts), a German officer of some influence during the occupation in WWII.
Initially, Suite Française presents as a wartime thriller. When the Germans arrive in France, they impose an abundance of restrictions on the villagers, taking up residence in everyone's home and creating a general sense of persisting unease. Lucile's friend Madeline Labarie (Ruth Wilson) is sexually targeted by a soldier, which escalates tensions between the Germans and her injured husband Benoit (Sam Riley). There's also an increased sense of volatility in the Angellier household when Lucile doesn't put up as much resistance against the Germans as Madame Angellier would like.
During these early sequences, this treatise on the human condition is quite effective. Rather than comment on the signifiers of war, the story takes the opportunity to examine how different people respond to such a situation. For the most part, the villagers, while seemingly banding together, use the opportunity to dig up old resentments against their neighbours and throw each other under the bus to the Nazis. And while the Nazis aren't exactly portrayed as saints, the depiction of Bruno as an even-tempered, even reasonable, musician is certainly thornier and more challenging than the usual blanket villainous depictions audiences are used to.
Where Suite Française runs into trouble is its handling of contradicting themes. In a novel, where inner emotional states can be contextualized, the tone has a consistent, guiding voice. But in film, without careful balance and a firm grasp of tonal continuity, things can quickly get out of hand. The biggest issue here is that there are simply too many storylines and too complex an emotional framework for a standard feature-length film. This is a case where a miniseries or a simplification of narrative was necessary.
Once Lucie starts up a romance with Bruno, the thriller elements shift to more of a sudsy hidden romance format, and because little time is spent developing this attraction, it never really generates any passion. This makes the climax, wherein Lucie becomes embroiled in a controversy involving a fellow villager on the run from the Nazis, fall completely flat. Part of the power of this story relies on our investment in the trust and romantic component of Lucie and Bruno's affair, but since it's merely an awkward diversion in a story that has a bit more focus on the many ways that such an occupation would affect a small village, it's difficult to get invested in the eventual blowout.
Without a clear tone or a theme that remains consistent — the setup of examining human insidiousness gives way to a confused look at allegiance and loyalty — Saul Dibb's technically apt wartime drama flounders around confusedly. This leaves little to consider and pontificate during the final credits beyond the nagging question: "Who gave Margot Robbie that terrible wig?"