Film Review | Suite Francaise

A film adaptation of Irene Némirovsky’s posthumously published World War II novel simmers with potential, but this polite costume drama doesn't do justice to the emotional and political complexities of the source material. 

Star-crossed: Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts
Star-crossed: Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts

The genesis and subsequent exhumation of Irene Némirovsky’s incomplete manuscript for Suite Francaise is just as fascinating as the story it tells, and certainly competes in the drama and intrigue stakes with this film adaptation – a tasteful but somewhat flaccid affair from relative newcomer Saul Dibb.

Planned as a larger cycle of novels depicting the Nazi occupation of France, the composition of Suite Francaise was cut short when Némirovsky – a Ukranian Jew – was arrested by the Nazis in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, where she died at the age of 39. However, Némirovsky’s daughter Denise finally discovered the notebook containing the novel in the late 90s, which she published in France in 2004, and it went on to become an international bestseller.

Though we do get a glimpse of Némirovsky’s own situation in a character that could easily be a stand-in for her (here played by Alexandra Maria Lara), one wonders whether a film entirely dedicated to Némirovsky’s direct experience as a writer between the wars would have made for more compelling viewing. For while her fiction still bears very close resemblance to real-life experience, the thread of romantic melodrama serves to distract from what could have been a more cutting, memorable story.

France, 1940. In the first days of occupation, beautiful Lucile Angellier is trapped in a stifled existence with her controlling mother-in-law as they both await news of her husband: a prisoner of war.

We are taken to the small provincial of Bussy in 1940, which is disturbed by a sudden but initially, relatively peaceful occupation by German militia.


The disruption instead occurs at communal level, with certain soldiers taking pleasure in torturing the ‘little lives’ of the peasants that are forced to take them in – such as Benoit (Sam Riley) and Madeleine Labarie (Ruth Wilson), while our protagonist Lucile (Michelle Williams) undergoes a subtler intrusion: that of a handsome and cultured Lieutenant Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts), for whom she begins to develop feelings despite the fact that her husband is away fighting her compatriots, and much to the chagrin of her stern mother-in-law, Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas). A composer before he was drafted into the war, Bruno’s gentle spirit appears to contradict the actions of both his superiors and military colleagues.

But their will-they/won’t-they dynamic draws suspicion in this tight-knit community – both from the peasants Madame Angellier perceives as ‘beneath’ them, as well as the collaborationist bourgeois elite, personified by Viscount de Montmort (Lambert Wilson) and his wife (Harriet Walter).

Though Dibb directs only one segment from Némirovsky’s tome of a book for obvious reasons, the melodramatic story still leaves room for plenty of complexities that are never fully exploited. The ‘odd couple’ story hinges on an essential ambiguity that is only played for its Romeo and Juliet dynamic and little else.

At same time, the film still manages to be overstuffed: with secondary characters bloating the narrative flow and running time, often unnecessarily. The parallel experience of both the bourgeois and rural families is well presented, but one of each would have been enough.

Williams and Schoenaerts both hold their own, though the latter manages to affect pained restraint more that his co-star, who comes across as listless rather than genuinely wistful for most of the time. As happens all too often, Scott-Thomas is trotted out to play the take-no-prisoners authority figure, and in this case she’s not allowed to skim any deeper than the Dowager Countess stereotype embodied by Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey.

With its emotional beats in the right place and a story that’s hard to resist either way, rounded off by kind of sumptious production design that gets bums on seats, Suite Francaise – a BBC Films co-production – never ventures too far beyond its comfort zone. Which is a shame, because in the place of a generic costume drama, we could have had a complex treatment of the psychological dynamics of war. 

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