On the Silver Screen – Suite Française
Saul Dibb’s Suite Française adapts the bestselling unfinished novel by Irène Némirovsky for the big screen to tell the extraordinary story of the forbidden romance between French Villager Lucile Angellier (Michelle Williams) and German soldier Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts).
I’m completely unfamiliar with the novel this film is based on but I know from a little research that there’s much more to the novel than we get here. For the most part the film focuses on the forbidden romance angle but there’s still far too much going on elsewhere in the film that it feels sort of muddled.
For the longest time the film appears to be focused on the relationship between Lucile and her hardened mother-in-law Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas) with brief mentions that Lucile’s husband is off fighting in the war and that she doesn’t really want to be living with her mother-in-law. She also doesn’t seem to be all that fussed about her husband. All of this would be fine if we had some context to the situation other than the barely mentioned setup that exists here.
There are some really good scenes between Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas though and both actresses portray their characters really well. Michelle Williams does a strong job in the lead role portraying Lucile with a strong will while having a deep sense of vulnerability. It is well established that she has a romantic and artistic edge to her.
Bruno Von Falk comes into the story relatively late and he’s a bit thinly characterised. The only real indication that he’s “different” to all the other German soldiers is that he plays beautiful music on the piano as well as writing it. He spends so little time doing anything else that it’s impossible to use anything else to identify him. It’s a classic case of telling the audience what we’re suppose to know about him rather than showing us.
As such, their romance falls a little flat without any defined characterisation driving it. I never really got the sense that Lucile should have much reason to see him in a different light to the other German soldiers. He says and does so little around her that it feels like the romance comes from nowhere. Awkward dialogue and a lack of chemistry between the two actors doesn’t really help matters much.
As I said above the biggest issue this film has is that it feels a little unfocused. It tries to establish the romance, Lucile’s relationship with her mother-in-law, the effect of the War on the town as well as the reputation Lucille and her mother-in-law have throughout the town. There are some admittedly interesting moments where Madame Angellier is seen as being an unfair landlady type character but they don’t go far enough to live up to their full potential.
Similarly the unrest felt throughout the town because of the German occupation doesn’t ever receive the development it deserves. There are some moments of the Germans mistreating them and retaliation from the people living there but it feels very much like a tick box exercise. I would also have liked to see more of the gossip angle that was alluded to but never really went anywhere. We see some pieces of paper detailing what horrible thoughts people have about their neighbours and some people call Lucille a whore to her face but there’s not much else to it.
It shouldn’t really make a difference but it felt really odd to have a film set in France where everyone speaks English with a Received Pronunciation accent. If it weren’t for the constant reminders that they were in France I might have forgotten. Similarly the Germans mostly speak English with German accents. It makes the whole thing feel a little less than authentic.
Lastly, this may not have been the intention but the wall of text at the end of the film explaining where the story came from and how it came to see the light of day seemed like a bit of an obvious attempt to make the audience feel sympathy for Lucille and create a connection to the story that isn’t encouraged by the film itself. To me it just seemed like a lazy way to manufacture emotion where there was none.
An uneven and unfocused film that fails to capitalise on the massive potential the story provides.
Michelle Williams does a really good job in the lead role. She gives Lucile a sense of strength as well as vulnerability. There’s lots of depth to her performance and the character is at times written very well.
Matthias Schoenaerts’ Bruno Von Falk enters the story so late and is so thinly characterised that it’s hard to sympathise with him. Other than him playing the piano, talking softly and writing music there’s no real sense that he’s all that different from the other German soldiers. I really didn’t buy the relationship between Von Falk and Lucile as it doesn’t really come from anywhere organic and blends in with the multitude of other events happening alongside.
The biggest issue with this film is the complete lack of focus. It could have been really good if the narrative stuck with the forbidden love angle and explored that in a very meaningful way but there’s just too much going on. The War, German occupation of the town, internal town politics and the perception of Lucile and her mother-in-law by their neighbours are all thrown in a blender and are only covered in a superficial manner.
I found the whole thing lacking in authenticity given that all the French characters spoke English in Received Pronunciation accents and all the Germans spent most of the film speaking English with a German accent. It all felt very false and the weaknesses in the way the film was constructed only made the problem worse.
There’s a lot of potential here but the film only covers things at a very basic surface level. From what I know of the book it deserves better treatment than this and the wall of text at the end of the film seems to try to force the audience to connect with the story despite the film failing to encourage this with what is on screen.