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.
Other Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:
Sarah’s Key (2010): From Book into Movie
The Book Thief (2013): From Book to Film
Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)
Woman In Gold: Then and Now (2015)
18 thoughts on “Suite Française Movie Adaptation”
This has not been released in the States yet. I’ve been waiting for this for what seems like forever. I loved the novel.
This one just had one week of showing before it was gone. Glad I caught it that time before I left for Toronto in July. It doesn’t look like it will have a wide release in North America. It is sad that Némirovsky could not finish her intended work.
Oh, I think you’re really hit on something with the thoughts of just how passable war literature can be. I remember people raving about The Book Thief, but it struck me as entertaining enough, not quite real, a grasping at the theme of war as something to make a work deeper than it really is. I feel the same about Sebastian Faulks, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a bit slight too. By contrast, there are some much less dramatic books about the war (children’s books – Carrie’s War, and Michelle Magorian) which have a much more authentic flavour to them.
Suite Francaise is such a contrast to so many war novels – not falling into the traps of traditional romance stories taking centre stage, indeed, set in the fear and carnage of Europe at the time, it could only ever be a sideline. I can see how it could have been daunting to make such a film though, and so why the makers turned away from that direction.
Having said that, I’d still like to give Pat Barker a read to see if she can mitigate against my disappointment.
O you have just reminded me when you mentioned Sebastian Faulks. I remember Birdsong (the mini TV series) was quite well done, that’s with Eddie Redmayne before he was a major star, and Oscar winner (who would have thought!). And I love Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End TV adaptation (Tom Stoppard’s screenplay) with Benedict Cumberbatch also before he was a major star and Oscar nominee (alas, better luck next time). Anyway, this points to my observation: looks like WWI fares better than WWII in recent screen history. To some degree I personally think, WWI’s popularity is due to Downton Abbey. Only after I’d seen DA did I turn to watch these WWI productions. And then there’s Testament of Youth which didn’t come here to my city. But of course, these are worthy productions, albeit on the small screen only. Of them all, Parade’s End is my fave.
Like The Book Thief, another one came to mind, and that’s Sarah’s Key. (Click on the links to my reviews if you’re interested.) I lament that the truly epic, iconic Holocaust movie, not for the violence and grandeur war scenes, but the individual, affective storyline to move with power has all but disappeared (another I just added in is Life Is Beautiful).
It might be watchable but it sounds like one of those movies you watch when there is nothing else better which is too bad really.
I always support KST, no matter which films she appears in. This one is not bad but if you’re time pressed and faced with numerous life choices, like, reading, biking, gardening, harvesting, canning, writing, blogging… I can understand it won’t make it to the top of your priorities. 🙂
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Wonderful review, so many movies based on books seem to disappoint and so many just feel like they are mining a successful narrative for a short term emotional response or brief diversion.
Welcome to the pond, Arabella, where you throw in your two pebbles to make some ripples. You have said it well, sometimes a movie is indeed a “short term emotional response or brief diversion.” Can a movie adaptation ever be as good as the book? That’s exactly the title of my post some years back. If you’re interested, check it out, for I’d presented my case: the movie should be evaluated as an entity entirely on its own. And yes, there are those that are as good as the book.
Hope to hear from you again. 😉
Your comment about the shifts in war movies is intriguing to me. We live in a time when history and its realities are being disposed of in the name of political correctness. Banning the Confederate flag and digging up the graves of old Confederate generals, for example, may provide some symbolism and some emotional gratification, but history is what it is: and we seem increasingly to prefer what we imagine. Hence, the arrival of what I like to call “historical air-brushing” — the removal of all that disfiguring ambiguity and discomfiting fact.
Whether that was the intent with this movie, I can’t say. And in fact, I suspect it wasn’t. But much of the rise in ahistorical thinking isn’t conscious or intentional. I’m not sure what the cause might be — although I do toy with the thought that too much virtual reality might be causing us to think that all of reality is a construct.
You’ve done a good job with the review. I appreciate a reviewer who can lead me to conclude, “this one’s not for me,” as well as someone who can send me running to the theater!
“historical air-brushing”… what an interesting description. I lament the disappearance of the epic, iconic WWII movie, for we still need to hear that voice that speak poignantly against the Holocaust, no matter how many years the piece of history has passed us by… maybe even more now as the few survivors dwindle in number, soon none will be around to tell eye-witness accounts. Have you seen the film Life is Beautiful? If you haven’t, this is a must-see.
Fascinating review, with lots to think about. Indeed, your point about Kristin S.T. playing older is interesting. As is the discussion about such films as the wonderful Life is Beautiful and disappointing Sarah’s Key (I loved the book). Another I doubt will come here unless it finds a home during a film festival. I find both wars so compelling (as you know) and it’s always a bit of a disappointment when what could be an interesting premise for a drama fails to bring it to the table.
You know, I still watch The English Patient every occasionally. KST is beautiful there and I think she still is now. Hope there will be more roles for her like in this film, still being chased, umm, maybe Colin Firth or Ralph Fiennes again? Somebody go write a screenplay for them!
Now that would be a trio — Scott Thomas, Firth and Fiennes! I had to come back to this after finishing the novel. You know, I didn’t find the story of Dolce so compelling. I loved the first one — Storm in June — following the various families during the evacuation, and while of itself it might not have been much of a movie, I would love to have seen those sequences on film. I just kept wanting Dolce to end and found the appendices in the book — one was the correspondence related to Nemerovsky;s desperate attempts to be protected and her husband’s to find her after she was arrested; the other her notes for the remainder of the Suite — much more fascinating (and wishing the film was about her story. Actually, that would make an interesting screenplay — interspersing her story and the story she was writing.
In the book I really didn’t like any of the Dolce characters except Bruno, which is jarring reality because it strikes me that the last character in the world I would be inclined to “like” or connect with would be the Nazi — that’s against everything I am. He was so very human and a reminder that so many soldiers in so many wars do as they were ordered, not particularly what they wanted. Lucile, some. But to be honest, I cannot see Michelle Williams in that role. Keira Knightly, maybe. Or Sybil. Or any number of women.
Normally, given the subject matter, this is one I would definitely seek out but I’m not so sure anymore.
You’re right. The film seems to pick up just the idea of falling in love with the enemy to make a full feature. It definitely lacks a dramatic story arc, events and sequences to make it interesting, albeit I admit I was captivated just the same in wanting to find out what happens next, for I’ve forgotten the story in the book. As for Michelle Williams… seems like she might need some motivating, re-charging, re-directing… to get her career going again. There are so many competitions these days, one has to remain real sharp to stay afloat in the movie industry, I suppose, esp. for a female actor I’m afraid. Kristin Scott Thomas is a case in point too. Very unfortunate that she doesn’t get the respect and roles she deserves.
In the end of Dolce in the book, Bruno goes off to fight in Russia. They seem to have an agreement of sorts to connect at some point, should they survive. In Nemirovsky’s notes for the future books she indicates a plot line where Jean Mairie Michaud (his parents were taken in by Lucile and her mother-in-law and it’s where Lucile sends Benoit) get together and fall in love. The third book was to be called “Captivity.” I’m not sure who was to be captive except at some point Jean Marie is to be arrested or at least questioned and taken in. Pericand and Corte from the first book become collaborators. I really found the notes and letters fascinating.
Sounds like what’s written in the book, and what’s to be written from the notes, are more interesting than the story in the movie. It’s a pity that all these talents like Némirovsky were wasted in the Holocaust. Another one I’m thinking of is Anne Frank. And of course, multitudes of others. Schindler’s List was on TV a few weeks ago and I recorded it. This time around watching it I had renewed respect for Spielberg. Just this single movie can put him in the history book of American cinema. And of course, great job from the whole cast and crew. Can you imagine Ralph Fiennes got his breakout role there as evil personified? And Liam Neeson established himself as the unbreakable hero.
Another film adaptation that doesn’t disappoint is Testament of Youth, albeit about the First WW. Gathering my thoughts on that and will post once I’ve got them sorted out. Don’t miss it when it comes around to your area.
I’m with you on Schindler’s List. How he was able to pull that off — a splendid film, cast, writing, everything — on a subject that so many shy away from. Those things are hard to watch — that was one of the most difficult, heartbreaking films I’ve ever seen. And yet so important. Ralph Fiennes amazes me — this role, M. Gustav — talk about A-Z! (Or Z to A!)
I’m glad you liked Testament of Youth. The Celebration Cinema site says early October, but they have a number of theatres and not all of them get the same films. Grand Rapids tends to get some of the more art-film type. I hope they consider this more broad than that and that it shows up here.
It would be interesting, Anne Frank as an adult. Would she have stayed true to her dream as a writer? What would her life have been like after the war? Would she have found another occupation or voice? That could be a novel in itself…