Suite Francaise

Art & Culture

It's hard to describe quite how bad this is. It's a stilted adaptation of the best selling novel (the background of which is somewhat more interesting than the book), which is dull, implausible, poorly made and altogether inexcusable. I am not recommending it.

Usually the script is the culprit in any disaster, but while the script is indeed poor, we have to go further back to understand the problems. The biggest mistake was to make a film in the first place.

Let me try and explain. Suite Francaise is a book written by a Jewish Frenchwoman in the 1940s, who conceived of it as a five part novel, covering the German Occupation of France (which she was living through). She never got to finish all five parts, since she was arrested and taken to a concentration camp where she died. Only 2 parts were written, and they sat unnoticed in a suitcase for 60 years, till her daughter discovered them, and they were published in 2004. The book became a huge bestseller, and a film was the natural outcome, unwise as that might turn out to be.

The filmmakers have chosen to film the second part of the book, which takes place in a small French town called Bussy. Lucile (Michelle Williams) lives there with her beastly mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) who treats her with contempt. Lucile's husband Gaston is at war and is then reported captured by the Germans, which makes the fact of a German officer being billeted with the two women an especially offensive action. But… Lucile is lonely. She never really loved her husband, has no friends, and isn't even allowed to play the piano. SO the fact that big butch Bruno (Mattias Schoenaarts) is not only just as sweet as pie, but also a piano player, means that they start exchanging forbidden glances across the abyss that divides them.

Meanwhile, in a pointless subplot, farmer Bruno is unhappy about the fact that the snotty German officer who has been billeted with him is paying unwelcome attentions to his wife, and may have to take matters into his own hands. There is a Viscount and his wife who are keen to collaborate with the Germans, Margot Robbie as a frisky young woman who likes sex with men whatever colour uniform they're wearing, and a general culture of suspicion and mistrust among the French who adapt to their new masters in different ways.

There are a lot of much better films that have covered some of this territory. Le Corbeau – made in 1943 by French director Henri Georges Clouzot while the Germans still ruled France – is a masterpiece about how anonymous letters and vicious innuendo can destroy a community; Lacombe Lucien is one of the best ever films about collaboration; while the Czech film Divided We Fall shows the effects of German occupation on a community. But Suite Francaise is more interested in Forbidden Love – between Bruno and Lucile – while the Occupation and collaboration are more like window dressing to emphasise the transgressive nature of the love story.

But the problems go deeper than that. The scriptwriter has chosen to take Part 2 of the boom as a stand alone story, which means eliminating the wider context; this in turn means that the surrounding story plots feel superficial and disconnected, or in the case of Bruno and his marital problems, a plot device to get the plot from A to B. Matters are not helped by the emotional void where the character of Lucile should be. This is the woman we're supposed to be interested in, and event to care about, but she is so lacking in energy, humour or joie de vivre, that it is impossible to do so. Michelle Williams can only have been cast with an American audience in mind. She doesn't look remotely French, and as we watch her being crushed for the umpteenth time by spiteful Kristin Scott Thomas, it's impossible not to want to give her a slap and make her stand up for herself.

Scott Thomas can play this kind of role in her sleep, and is almost the only character in the film with a bit of get up and go. Matthias Schoenaarts (Belgian pretending to be German) does his best as the Good German, but there is no chemistry with Williams, and the film is so keen to paint him as a saint that he doesn't seem real. I could go on (the film does), but I hope I have said enough to persuade you that – contrary to the reviews you have read, this is a Grade A stinker which makes Captain Correlli's Mandolin look rather good.


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