Director: Saul Dibb / Script: Saul Dibb, Matt Charman (from a novella by Iréne Némirovsky) / Editing: Chris Dickens / DP: Eduard Grau
Cast: Michelle Williams / Kristin Scott Thomas / Margot Robbie / Ruth Wilson / Sam Riley / Alexandra Maria Lara / Lambert Wilson / Harriet Walter / Tom Schilling / Matthias Schoenaerts
‘Allo ‘Allo Without the Laughs…
disappointingly sanitised picture this, given its origins. Original author Iréne Némirovsky wrote the novella of what would become Suite Française, in newly-occupied France, 1940. Being a French Jew, she was inevitably detained and ended-up at Auschwitz, where she met her death in 1942. However, prior to her detention, she passed on her notebook containing the unfinished manuscript, to her daughter, Denise.
Denise Epstein survived the war, but couldn’t bring herself to read her mother’s notebook, believing its memories would be too painful. In the late Nineties however, she elected to read them at-last, prior to their despatch to an historical archive. On discovering that the material was actually a novella, plans were changed at the last minute and the work found its way to publication instead. The resulting book caused a minor sensation at the time (2004), particularly in France: a country that still hadn’t shaken-off the ghosts of events that happened almost eighty years ago. Some wounds were still too raw for some, it seemed…
The inevitable film adaptation has a good pedigree behind it, beginning with the choice of director: Saul Dibb. I enjoyed his previous film to this – The Duchess – and he strikes me as a visually strong director, with a sound grasp of character-led pieces such as this. He recently delivered a well-received adaptation of R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, exploring the strains experienced by men in a World War One trench. One might say that, if that might be thought of as the last series of Blackadder, but without the laughs, then I’d go further and say that, at times, Suite Française best resembled a laughter-free ‘Allo ’Allo.
Bear with me.
After a brisk montage of newsreel footage showing the attack by German forces on Paris, we cut to a week later, mid-June 1940. Lucile Angellier (Michelle Williams, in a solid, committed performance that will span the emotional arc of her character), is accompanying the most terrifying person in the entire picture: her mother-in-law, Madame Angellier, played with a viperish intensity by Kristen Scott Thomas.
Madame is landlord to several tenanted farms around the small town of Bussy and, as is her custom, she collects rent on Sunday, hoping to catch the ‘lower-orders’ as she disdainfully believes them to be: coarse and without manners. It’s a routine despised by Lucile, for whom many of the farmers are her old friends; but if Madame knows – or even cares – about this, she’s not letting-on. Instead, I think she delights in playing the Ring-Master. Yet it’s not without purpose: Lucile has married her son, the absent Gaston, and Madame wants Lucile to grasp the reality of running an estate, so as to preserve her legacy and ensure Gaston has something to return to, once the war’s over.
Things take a dramatic turn for the worst, when their car begins encountering others, loaded-down with their owner’s worldly-goods and, all too soon, they merge into an endless column of refugees on-foot. It’s The Exodus From Paris and everyone seems to be going their way. Just as the enormity of the situation begins to dawn on both women, the Luftwaffe bomb a passing train, in full-view of the column, before wheeling-about to bomb them directly. The scene is handled very well, with the resumed vitriol of Madame at its end, merely a manifest controlling emotion; she’s as terrified as everyone around her, but this is her first taste of the war and she’s protecting what’s hers; namely, her car and daughter-in-law.
For her part, Williams plays Lucile with a meek, winsome docility early-on, which is entirely correct. Her character has a wide gulf to cross and at this point, she’s still unaware of what lies ahead. Not that she has to wait for long, as a German regiment rolls into Bussy while the townsfolk are in church; their recital of The Lord’s Prayer (‘As we forgive those who trespass against us.’) resonates strongly here.
Cue: Oberleutnant Bruno Falk. A cultured, young German officer, who’s assigned a billet at the Angellier household. If this screen adaptation is faithful to the original text (I’m unqualified to judge), it reveals a weakness here; one that’s common to another classic I recently reviewed, covering similar territory: La Silence de la Mer. In both films, the billeted officer is urbane, cultured and (improbably) plays piano! (in this case, the unwanted guest goes further, by composing his own lament: the titular Suite Française). It’s this very civility that makes it hard for the women left-behind, to subvert or rile against. So, in Silence, what ‘resistance’ there was, was shown in the utter indifference of the female lead, whereas in Française, such passive-aggressiveness is shown only by Madame. Lucile, being a warmer, natural soul and a lover of the Arts, can’t help but be drawn to this newcomer, even if he’s the enemy…
The only constraint acting upon her, is her relationship with Madame, as well as the preservation of her reputation; even more so, on seeing her friend Celine (Margot Robbie) sleeping with the enemy. Robbie looks uncomfortable in this picture and I don’t think it’s down to her ginger ‘fright-wig’. Rather, her role is just thin and under-written (though again, I don’t know if this is because there was little of it to begin with, or whether Dibb chose to edit it out…).
It leads to another problem I have with the picture: the film is top-heavy with characters, all fighting for screen-time. As well as the Angellier’s, we have Falk’s relationships with colleagues, the Labarie family, the Joseph’s and last, but not least, the Viscount de Montmort: local Mayor and dignitary, played brilliantly by Lambert Wilson, along with Harriet Walter as his wife; a mean-spirited shrew of a Viscountess, whose own blinkered outlook ultimately seals her husband’s fate. Such crowding might have been remedied in one of two ways: stripping out one of the minor characters altogether, or lengthening the running-time, to give more space for these characters to breathe.
As it is, my guess is neither option was taken, either because the source was too thin to begin with, or because it’s Lucile’s tale and including more detail from elsewhere, would only expand upon what, with her limited P.O.V., she doesn’t know. To a casual observer, Lucile’s character is the least interesting here. I would counter with this observation: Lucile is the blank page, upon which the individual tales come to be written – until she has the confidence to write her own.
Sure enough, Madame’s attitude begins to harden, once she learns that Gaston’s unit has surrendered and is now in a German labour-camp. From this point, Falk is no longer a begrudged guest, but the Enemy. Her increased vigilance denies any chance for Lucile to deepen her putative romance with Falk. To the younger woman, this feels like denial; especially as Lucile has learnt, from one of many gossip-letter handed-in for the German authorities to consider, that Gaston not only has a mistress, but a daughter, too: who pre-dates his marriage to Lucile. This knowledge – that her marriage was built on a lie – now shifts the balance of power between the two women, with Madame now acknowledging her son to be no saint and Lucile, to realising that, with hindsight, she never loved Gaston in the first place.
In Lucile’s mind, this frees her of obligation and as a result, she does seduce Falk; driven by a craving for intimate contact, as much as the need to assert her sexual identity as a woman, in her own right.
The third act, revolves around Benoit Labarie; a tenanted farmer and husband to Madeline, played by Sam Riley and Ruth Wilson, respectively. Benoit’s frustrations, stem from an infirmity that prevented him from joining the army; instead, he fights for his family. Caught by the Viscountess whilst stealing one of her chickens, there’s an arrest warrant soon issued for him. Taking refuge in a barn, he confronts the hateful officer staying with them – a young man, at odds with the idealised Falk. Benoit kills him, then goes on the run. Madeline implores her friend Lucile to help, but Lucile is expecting Falk to join her for a romantic dinner-á-deux and is shocked to learn he’s actually leading the manhunt…
This is a defining moment in her journey, as she now sees for herself, the impact all this is having on her friends. The war is no longer affecting faceless, nameless refugees… Benoit’s act is not without its consequences, as Lucile is then drawn-into a tense climax that, whilst simplistic in structure, resonated deeply with me; particularly the last, lingering shot of the picture.
In that moment, Lucile has reached the other side of her story and is plainly terrified of what’s there: but she has no choice but to go on, exploring life beyond her docile simpering and become as engaging a character as those around her.
In conclusion, I’ll praise a top-cast for their committed performances (even Robbie’s was at least that, while it lasted). A word, too, for a production design that used its locations with creative sensitivity. However, the film’s tone was a little soft-centred for me; it lacked any grit that might’ve worn-through the often-cloying sentimentality. Plus, its relentlessly middle-class viewpoint, was too dominant.
Dibb undoubtedly did the best he could with the material but, at times, it all just felt a little ‘Made for TV’ for my taste; too prim for its own good.
She could easily scare the plague away!