“Be careful… with your life”
Irène Némirovsky’s novel Suite Française has one of those origin stories you’d scarcely believe if you read it in a novel itself. In 1942, Ukrainian-Jewish Némirovsky was deported from the France where she had lived more than half her life, having written two parts of an intended sequence of five novels in the previous couple of years. She spent time at Pithiviers and then Auschwitz where she was murdered, leaving notebooks with family members who could not bring themselves to look at them until they were to be donated to a museum whereupon they were amazed to find complete novels as opposed to mere scribblings – thus Suite Française was published in 2004 to considerable acclaim.
And where such stories go, film must follow and so a movie adaptation made its way to cinemas in 2015, directed by Saul Dibb and co-written with Matt Charman. Suite Française follows life in a village outside of Paris in the first few months of occupation in 1940 and as with several of the films I’ve watched recently, concerns itself with the lack of moral clarity at that time, refusing to depict the world in black and white with choices made easy with hindsight, but rather investigating the realities of living through such a time of crisis and the lengths to which people will go to to survive.
Michelle Williams’ Lucille lives with Madame, her domineering mother-in-law played by a brilliantly caustic Kristin Scott Thomas, and they anxiously wait for news of her husband who has been taken as a prisoner of war. But as refugees from an invaded Paris flood into town, followed by a regiment of German soldiers who move into the villagers’ homes with them, life becomes infinitely more complex. Accusations of collaboration are thrown like mud by the French, the position of authority is variously abused by the Germans, and in the midst of it all, Lucille finds herself falling for the officer billeted with them, Matthias Schoenaerts’ achingly sensitive Commander Falk (he plays the piano so he can’t be too bad a Nazi…!)
The love story is well done though not quite consequential enough, Williams is superbly understated and Schoenaerts is good as ever. It’s just that the fracturing of community life is far more interesting, as class and status come into play in the conflicts that arise, the jealousies that are provoked, the fear that emanates from every pore and toxifies once-solid relationships. Ruth Wilson and Sam Riley’s farm labourers versus Harriet Walter and Lambert Wilson’s Viscountess and Viscount de Montmort typify this clash perfectly and provide some of Suite Française’s stronger moments.