The film is the long anticipated adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s final work in progress before her death in 1942. Born in Ukraine, Némirovsky had moved to live in France since 1919. Before the Nazi occupation, she was a prominent literary figure in her adopted country, having published nine novels and a biography of Chekhov. The Nazi takeover sent her fleeing Paris. She was writing Suite Française in the village of Issy-l’Evêque where she was living with her husband and two young daughters when the French police arrested her for her Jewish descent and sent her to her demise in Auschwitz.
Suite Française was intended to be a literary composition in musical terms. Like a musical suite, the author had planned to write five pieces, but had only finished the first draft of two upon her death. The whole set when completed could have been an impressive eyewitness paralleled fiction, a historic testament reflecting the larger picture from the microlevel, a family, or, a woman and a man from different sides of the war falling in love.
Such is the story of “Dolce”, the second novella in her Suite on which the movie is based. Lucile Angellia (Michelle Williams) falls in love with a German officer staying in her house where she lives with her widowed mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas), the most elegant estate in the village. Lucile’s own husband has been missing in war and now a likely prisoner. That makes falling in love with the enemy right in your own home even more conflicting. However, Williams fails to bring out such internal battles or even ambivalence; Schoenaerts fares better in expressing the conflicts.
The opening of the film captures vividly what Némirovsky described as the ‘German artillery thunders… its wailings fill the sky’. As viewers we see people carrying suitcases and personal belongings scurry or simply dive for cover and we hear the sudden, roaring thunders of bomb blasting the country road on which refugees from Paris flee like rats – and as the camera zooms away – insects. It’s this kind of cinematic moments that make films powerful. We read about the air raids in the book, we see and hear the actual effects in the theatre. With that regard, the voiceover narrative by Michelle Williams is redundant. Or, maybe it’s just a lazy way of storytelling.
With that dynamic start, the film falters in not sustaining such power, albeit it still has many beautiful shots; romance in its period setting, the movie is visually appealing. But the attractions between Lucile and the handsome German official, Lieutenant Bruno von Falk, played by the ubiquitous Matthias Schoenaerts, soon becomes the centrepiece.
Like his role as Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd, here Schoenaerts portrays another man of few words. Compare the two roles, he is more convincing here with his German officer look, and yes, sitting at the piano, mesmerizing Lucile with his soft touch. No words needed when music lures.
If not interrupted by her feisty mother-in-law, Lucile would have dived into the pool of passion immediately. Thanks to Kristin Scott Thomas, who adds some realistic sparks into the dreamy world of wartime romance with the ‘wrong man’. Such episodes could make interesting exploration, but the film is overwhelmingly mellowdramatic and seems not intended to be deep or psychological.
When a farmer, Benoit Labarie (Sam Reily), kills a German officer, the plot thickens. And as a viewer, I’m thankful for that turn in the otherwise relatively uneventful story. Benoit’s wife Madeleine (Ruth Wilson) urged Lucile to help him out. And that she did, risking everyone in her household and ultimately leading to the moral dilemma of both herself and her enemy lover.
The prolific film composer Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech, 2010, among many other works) wrote the signature piece “Bruno’s Theme”. While romantic in its overall styling, it is punctuated with discords, could well be a reflection of Bruno’s inner state. The ending of the film shows us his resolve. When love and duty is in conflict, there can’t be any favourable resolve. But then again, the film does not go further into that.
Kristin Scott Thomas plays a pivotal role in balancing sense and passion in her household, and bringing out some worthwhile and lively performance for the production. My major objection regarding this talented veteran of cinema and the stage is that nearly all her movie roles in recent years present her in character twenty years older than she really is. Here, the first shot we see Madam Angellier is her white painted, over-made-up face as an old widow. That is one reason why her other work in 2014 My Old Lady is so refreshing, for we get to see her in a suitable age where she can still find love.
Regarding WWII Holocaust movies, it is unfortunate that films of this genre in recent years based on popular fiction or chronicling significant historical events are mere passable works, like The Monuments Men, or The Book Thief, Sarah’s Key, or the related film Woman in Gold. Seems like the epic war movie genre with its affective power to move has not re-emerged in the past decade, iconic films such as Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), and Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) have all but remain distant memories.
As for Suite Française the movie, it should not be seen as the adaptation of Némirovsky’s book called Suite Française, however unfinished. The movie is best taken as a rendition of a storyline in one of its pieces, and true to the title ‘Dolce’, sweetly laced with soft touches. Overall, despite its flaws, it is still a watchable film.
~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
This is my second entry to the Paris In July blogging event hosted by Tamara of Thyme for Tea.
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