Among the many variations on the "love that dare not speak its name", one of the most morally dubious is that of the "forbidden fruit" wartime affair. Though that is indeed at the heart of Suite Française, it's thankfully not rendered as superficially and simply as that.
In Saul Dibb's adaptation of part of Irène Némirovsky's posthumous, unfinished novel, the inevitable attraction between German officer Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenhaerts) and Frenchwoman Lucile Angellier (Michelle Williams) in 1940 rural France is coated in doubt and remorse, but also in defiance and truth. This makes Suite Française into a peculiar sort of woman's picture - one that highlights the traditional romance of a woman struggling against circumstances that prevent her from truly fulfill herself, but that also extends it through a series of micro-narratives that colour it around the edges, mirroring its structure while filling in the blanks.
Just like Mr. Dibb's bodice-ripper The Duchess seemed on the surface a mere prestige period drama tailor-made for Keira Knightley and turned out to have a peculiar, feminist undertone about a woman struggling with the social niceties of her period, so does Ms. Williams' Lucile reflect the shifting moral dimensions of the early days of the Nazi invasion of France during WWII. Stuck with her ogre of a mother-in-law (a typecast Kristin Scott Thomas in essentially a supporting role) in a small town that still seems to live according to feudal times, with the aristocracy exploiting the rentiers who look over their lands, Lucile is perfectly aware her infatuation with the officer billeted to her house is wrong, especially since her own husband is away fighting. But her stifled self can't help recognise in this piano-playing, polite enemy a sort of kindred soul that seems to be as much of an outlier as she is in a place where everyone is more concerned with making sure they're better than everyone else.
The word "love" is never really uttered between Lucile and Bruno, though it's clear to us that it is on both their minds from a certain point, and the film makes much of the shifting moral allegiances of everyone involved, pointing out that everybody has their reasons. In one of the film's most arresting sequences, Lucile finds out the trove of poison pen letters the town's inhabitants sent to the German occupants, denouncing once and for all the hypocrisy of Bussy's need to "keep up appearances" that will become the catalyst to her actions from then on. That the film's vision of wartime France avoids gratuitous manicheism and quick judgment to explore the many shades of behaviour and self-justification is all the more tribute to Ms. Némirovsky's writing: the novel was being composed at the very moment its story was taking place, and the writer died in a concentration camp in 1942 without ever finishing it, the manuscript being published posthumously only nearly a half century later.
A modern woman stifling in the corset of old-fashioned manners that WWII destroyed once and for all, Lucile is another of Ms. Williams' stronger-than-they-seem women roles, and also a quietly controlled, fiery-on-the-inside performance that underlines the actress' ability to lose herself inside her characters. Mr. Dibb surrounds her with the traditionally impeccable, British-quality period reconstruction of prestige pictures, but also allows the underlying disquiet to permeate the film and bubble under the surface without ever truly spilling over the edge.
France, United Kingdom, Belgium, USA, 2014
Cast Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Mathias Schoenhaerts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Heino Ferch, Tom Schilling, Harriet Walter, Alexandra Maria Lara, Clare Holman, Margot Robbie, Lambert Wilson
Director Saul Dibb; screenwriters Mr. Dibb and Matt Charman; based on the novel Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky; cinematographer Eduard Grau (colour, widescreen); composers Rael Jones and Alexandre Desplat; designer Michael Carlin; costumes Michael O'Connor; editor Chris Dickens; producers Xavier Marchand, Nicolas Bremond, Michael Kuhn and Andrea Cornwell; production companies TF1 Droits Audiovisuels and Entertainment One Films Production in co-production with Scope Pictures, in association with BBC Films and The Weinstein Company
Screened March 27th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)