Early in Suite Francaise someone says you need a war to really know the character of a person and what’s most interesting about this film is the way it uncovers the character of the French town’s inhabitants after the Nazis invade.
Some are shameless in their collaboration, welcoming the commanding officers with gifts and organising tea parties for them. Some use it as an opportunity to settle long-held grudges against their neighbours, giving a glimpse of the rivalries and resentments behind the town’s pretty facades. Some find ways to resist the enemy, while others fall in love with them.
Based on Irène Némirovsky’s novel, published some fifty years after she died in Auschwitz, the film takes as its central story the romance between Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams) the wife of a French soldier imprisoned in Germany, and a Nazi officer Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts) billeted at the house where she lives unhappily with her wealthy mother-in-law. Kirsten Scott Thomas is wonderful as the joyless and domineering Madame who causes Bruno to observe ironically, “I’m the one everyone’s supposed to be scared of”. There turns out to be more to her than a heartless and exploitative rent collector.
Lucille finally proves there’s also more to her insipid character than following obediently behind her mother-in-law and waiting patiently for her husband to return. The romance fails to convince though. To start with, it takes more than a love of classical music and a few tears about executing an innocent man to soften the edges of a Nazi officer, and Schoenaerts’ performance did little to give Bruno’s character any warmth or charisma. Added to that, Michelle Williams’ oddly underwhelming Lucille meant it was a passionless damp squib of an affair.
Suite Francaise shows how occupation, far from uniting the community against the common enemy, can breed betrayal and fear, entrenching some social differences and challenging others in a society that could rival any English obsession with class. You can’t help but wonder how it would have been if it were an English town under Nazi occupation.