During its epilogue, “Suite Française” belatedly reveals to us its most interesting aspect. The movie is based on a novella written by Russian Jewish novelist Irène Némirovsky during the World War II, and it was a part of her planned series “Suite Française”, which she unfortunately could not complete before she was arrested in France and then sent to Auschwitz. Her surviving daughter Denise later discovered her mother’s unfinished work after more than 50 years, and two first novellas of the series, completed before her arrest in 1942, were eventually published in 2004.
One interesting thing about Némirovsky’s novellas is that they directly reflect the German occupation in France during the World War II, and the story of the movie begins shortly after the German Invasion in May 1940. Everything looks fine as usual in a small rural town named Bussy, but everyone in the town has heard about the imminent fall of Paris, and they sense more of the approaching storm of the war as they hear more about the rapid, unstoppable advance of the German Army across their country.
Lucille Angelliar (Michelle Williams) fled to her husband’s hometown from Paris in advance, but she has to live with her frigid mother-in-law Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas) while her husband is desperately fighting somewhere on the receding front line like many other French soldiers. While firmly believing that things will go back to normal, Madame Angellier manages her business strictly as usual, and Lucille has to assist her mother-in-law even though she does not like how heartlessly her mother-in-law deals with poor town residents struggling to pay their rent as demanded by her.
Anyway, the war breaks into their life sooner than expected. More refugees come from Paris, and Lucille and Madame Angellier happen to witness how grim the situation really is when they come across the endless line of refugees outside the town. They and other town people are shocked by the news of their country’s defeat, and they become all the more nervous as their town is occupied by a company of the German Army a few days later.
While most town people look at those German soldiers with fear and hate, they have no choice but to obey to their changed circumstance, and some of them become quite selfish and opportunistic in the name of survival. Viscount de Montmort (Lambert Wilson), the mayor of the town, has no problem with cooperating with the German company commander, and Madame Angellier exploits the current situation with no hesitation even though she hates Germans because of her son who has not returned yet.
Needless to say, she is not pleased when a young German officer comes into her house. Although Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a nice and courteous lad and he will probably be not much of a problem as staying upstairs for a while, he is still an annoyance to accommodate for her, and that surely adds extra frigidity to her haughty appearance.
In case of Lucille, she finds herself attracted to this handsome officer especially after seeing his more sensitive and sophisticated side. He aspired to be a composer before joining his army along with his brothers as demanded by his family, and she comes to be curious about him as listening to him playing her piano in private. As they become more accustomed to each other’s presence under the same roof day by day, they begin to feel something mutual between them, and, of course, both are compelled to follow their hearts although they are also aware well of the line they should not cross in their uneasy world.
While their fragile relationship goes through several predictable ups and downs, there comes a serious incident involved with Benoit (Sam Riley), a sullen young farmer who could not join the army during the invasion due to his leg injury. When one of Bruno’s fellow officers comes to stay at the house where Benoit and his wife and children live, it is pretty apparent that there will be a big trouble sooner or later, and Bruno is eventually assigned to an unpleasant task while Lucille is more reminded of the harsh reality she has overlooked as occupied with her private feelings.
While this is a typical wartime romance involved with conflicted lovers, the adapted screenplay by the director Saul Dibb and his co-writer Matt Charman does not bring anything new beyond its many clichéd elements. There are indeed some interesting elements including the one probably inspired by Némirovsky’s own life story, the movie is frequently hampered by rote plot and weak characterization, and there is not much to engage or affect us emotionally even when things become grimmer later in the story. We are not that surprised to see Bruno still caring about Lucille notwithstanding their widened gap, and it is not very surprising to see either that Madame Angellier is revealed to have, what do you know, a heart behind her cold stern face.
Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Matthias Schoenaerts did as much as they could do with their underdeveloped characters. While Williams looks a bit awkward as surrounded by her two European co-stars, she mostly acquits herself well in the film, and Scott Thomas, an actress always good at playing icy haughty characters, fills her role without much difficulty, but Schoenaerts, who somehow reminds me of Ryan Gosling in his dashing appearance, is totally wasted in comparison. In spite of their diligent efforts, “Suite Française” still feels empty and superficial without much impression to leave, and, to be frank with you, I had a more entertaining time as gathering the background information on the novella it is based on.