This is a handsome and intelligent adaptation of the writings of Irène Némirovsky – the Russian-born French writer who died in Auschwitz and whose two unpublished novellas emerged in 2004 as one book, ‘Suite Française’. In her late thirties at the time of writing, Némirovsky fictionalised the lives of people around her in German-occupied France.
Taking the novel’s lead, Saul Dibb’s nuanced, compelling film offers an intriguing close-up portrait of Bussy, a northern French village forced to host a garrison of Nazi soldiers. At the film’s heart is a sort-of romance between timid Lucile (Michelle Williams), and a cultured, piano-playing Nazi officer, Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts). But more lasting than the film’s romantic angle is the snapshot that Dibb (‘Bullet Boy’, ‘The Duchess’) offers of a class-ridden society under the spotlight of occupation.
The themes of collaboration, compassion and betrayal run through the film, and characters who initially seem to be one thing, like Lucile’s hard-hearted mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas), emerge as more complex. Even the film’s portrayal of the Nazi soldiers is satisfyingly complicated. Also refreshing is a sense that we’re thrown into the middle of the uncertainty of war; ‘Suite Française’ works hard to free itself from the benefit of hindsight.
The film is not without its problems – Michelle Williams is an elusive lead, and a wide array of characters come at the expense of depth – but it’s a knotty, thoughtful piece of work nonetheless.