Film review: Suite Francais

For all of its audience-snaring big name stars, Suite Francaise will face the dilemma of being overlooked as a light romance chick-flick, notwithstanding its WWII setting, and unjustly so. The novel director Saul Dibb has adapted from was written by Irène Némirovsky, a Ukrainian Jew who spent most of her life in France and penned Suite Francaise during the war. She had aimed for it to be her greatest accomplishment, a classic like those written by her heroes Tolstoy and Dostoevky, but her mission was cut short when she was captured and killed by the Nazis in 1942. The unfinished masterpiece was discovered by her daughter and published as late as 2004. Keeping faithful to the novel, Dibb’s Suite Francaise is indicative of the intricacies both collaberating and staunch solitude give rise to during war.

What is remarkable about this film- a quality which has been collected and instated from the novel itself- is its ability to sympathetically portray a Nazi German soldier without amorally losing sight of war time atrocities. In tune with the aphorism “history is written by the victors”, the humanity and realism of war enemies can be overlooked by the overpowering image of their system’s ideology. Not only does Nemirovsky bravely express their humanity-the good and bad- but she even tries to encapture how individuals themselves become lost in communal power and how devastating the consequences can be when the governing ideals are as immoral as the German armies during WWII. This strong social commentary has been brilliantly translated by Saul Dibb. A lead character, commander Bruno von Falk, wavers from following his own judgement to shutting off his instinctual moral compass and following orders. Thinking about what those orders actually entail makes it too hard to survive, he explains to his love interest Lucile. In her he finds solace, which formulates the overriding message; Suite Francaise expresses best the unending craving we all seek for some form of love and mutual understanding regardless of the circumstances we are in.

While there are two clear leads, our love interests,the sideline narratives are intertwined with enough force to give the story the symphony of voices it needs, for it is not just the lovesong of Bruno and Lucile, but an operatic rendering of the suffocating effects of invasion and war.

The cinematography has the usual captivating traits of a Mediterranean period piece, from the glowing summer haze to the candy coloured French windowframes, but it works best when at its starkest. The overhead shot of the German forces marching into the village is quickly followed by a low-angle shot of the soldiers’ feet marching in synchrony. As the film progresses, the inimitably pompous and cold mother-in-law of Lucile, is unmasked by the camera. Lingering close-ups reveal a woman whose steely reserves are as evident on her heavily painted face and austere appearance as they are within. When we finally are allowed to see her break the defiant gentry act, she resembles Degas’ “Sad Woman”, or multiple other similitudes of that impressionist favourite-a lone gentile woman at a bar, wearing her finest and drinking hard liquor. She may be in a different setting but the pathos is the same.

The only drawback is the constant transitioning between three languages, albeit for the understandable reason of ensuring it reaches a wider audience and making it more commercially successful. Subtitles may be offputting for many people, and the actors may be from various different origins but it can be hard to get the balance right when attempting to maintain some French and German in the script. At times, the transitions are peaky in Suite Francaise, appearing unnatural or downright confusing.

Standout performances are produced from Michelle Williams, Kristen Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts and Ruth Wilson (though her accent wavers). In all, Suite Francaise voices the human errs and fortitude of those once written off as purely complicit in unspeakable situations. In cinemas 13 March 2015. Watch the trailer here.

Aoife Ryan

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