Suite Française focuses on the civilian side of WWII

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


3 out of 5

The last couple of years have seen the rebirth of the high-profile World War II movie. From the unflinching Fury to the feel-good caper The Monuments Men, humanity’s bloodiest conflict is being consistently revisited, perhaps as a reflection of our troubled current times.

But compared with the noble, unambiguous WWII movies of the past, this new batch is permeated with moral relativity: The Russian spy allowed to work in the intelligence unit, Allied troops raping and pillaging, the German collaborator with an honourable agenda, and so on.

Suite Française takes full advantage of this new approach. Directed by Saul Dibb, the film stays away from combat scenarios, focusing instead on those left behind (women, children, men deemed not suitable for battle) and their complicated relationship with the occupying forces.

The town of Bussy in France has mostly stayed on the margins of the war effort. While most of the male population is in the trenches, life goes on in the town in a relatively normal fashion. That all comes to an end when the French capital falls, and a large number of Parisians and Nazi occupiers land in the sleepy settlement.

Bussy’s residents are forced to open their doors to the Germans, and dashing officer and accomplished musician Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone) lands in the nicest house in town: The estate of Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas), a hard-as-nails landlord. Von Falk takes a liking to Angellier’s daughter-in-law, Lucile (Michelle Williams), whose husband is currently a prisoner of war.

Von Falk and Lucile fall for each other, but the fundamental sociopolitical differences between them are too strong to be ignored. It doesn’t take long until they’re forced to take sides, and the notion of two nice people caught in an impossible situation just doesn’t cut it.

Suite Française thrives on the mechanics of life under occupation. There are collaborators, the resistance, those willing to see the Nazi soldiers as human beings and those who wouldn’t give an inch to their enemies. Relationships between neighbours become strained, compassion is seen as weakness and every action becomes a business deal of sorts.

Based on an unfinished novel by Irène Némirovsky (the manuscript was published six decades after the end of World War II), Suite Française is perfectly adequate for two thirds of its length. But in order to bring the story to an end, a denouement is shoehorned in, and it feels abrupt.

Another problem is Michelle Williams as Lucile. Normally a terrific performer who’s able to disappear in whatever role she’s playing, this time Williams feels more like a blank slate. (That’s not entirely her fault, as the character is underwritten.) This is particularly noticeable next to Ruth Wilson and Margot Robbie, who both have smaller but meatier parts, and the ever-brilliant Kristin Scott Thomas.

Despite its shortcomings, Suite Française is both well-crafted and fresh enough to justify a trip to the cinema.