'Suite Française' Does an Injustice to a Best-selling Novel

Director Saul Dibb’s take on Irène Némirovsky's book brings no hint of ideological or emotional complexity to the wartime-set melodrama.

Steffan Hill

Suite Française Directed by Saul Dibb; written by Saul Dibb, Matt Charman, based on the novel by Irène Némirovsky; with Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie, Alexandra Maria Lara, Lambert Wilson

The story behind “Suite Française” is well known. British director Saul Dibb’s movie is based on a novel that Russian-French writer Irène Némirovsky never got to finish, after she was sent to Auschwitz in July 1942; a month later, she died of typhus. Her children kept the manuscript for 60 years, before the book was finally published in 2004, becoming an international best-seller. Némirovsky’s notes suggest she planned for the novel to be in five parts, but that plan never came to fruition and only two of the five novellas were written. For some reason, Dibb chose to ignore the first part and focus only on the second, more melodramatic, section. Némirovsky intended to write an epic work of fiction about the Nazi occupation of France, and if there is one quality sorely lacking in Dibb’s failed adaptation, it is epic reach. But that is only one of the movie’s considerable flaws.

At this point, I should confess that I haven’t read the novel. A movie adaptation, however, has to be a substantive work in its own right, and in that sense Dibb’s movie is a complete disappointment. The film has no structure, no rhythm and no emotion – even when it shows events that are dramatic or morally ambivalent. Even without reading the book, I can see that the movie is no more than an illustration of the source. Lurching clumsily from one development to the next, it never builds into a film that expresses some kind of historically aware cinematic vision. The richness of the materials only makes this poverty more apparent.

Chilly relationship

The story is set in 1940 in Bussy, a (fictional) small town east of Paris that has been taken over by the Germans. Since period reconstruction is seemingly one of Dibb’s main goals as director, the movie begins with a scene showing the Nazis’ arrival in town. The social structure of Bussy is practically feudal. Inhabiting the biggest house in town is the richest local family, the Angelliers. The son, Gaston, whom we never actually see, is in a German prison camp; his mother, Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas), shares the home with her daughter-in-law, Lucile (Michelle Williams), with whom she has a chilly relationship. Lucile’s marriage to Gaston was apparently not a huge success, and her mother-in-law rules the household with an aristocratic stiffness that seems a little artificial. Most of the local peasants lease their farms from the Angelliers, and Madame is not very accommodating when it comes to her tenants’ financial obligations; her very arrival at a farm causes immediate unease. Of Scott Thomas’ many performances, this is one of the weakest.

Lucile, by contrast, is soft and delicate. The Germans force the Angelliers to house a German officer, Lt. Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts). Madame Angellier means to ignore him, but when Lucile discovers that he can play the piano and even compose his own romantic melodies, she melts. Bruno, whose musical sensibilities do not prevent him from carrying out the orders of his Nazi superiors, tells Lucile at one point that she is the only person with whom he feels some kind of connection.

The portrayal of Bruno is bland, and the romance that develops between Lucile and the German officer is similarly anemic, conveying neither passion nor emotion. Dibb doesn’t seem to know what to do with either Bruno or Lucile, and certainly not with their relationship. The main victims of his failure are the two leads: Schoenaerts is mechanical as Bruno, and Williams – generally a fine actress – has little choice but to spend the movie sporting a single melancholy expression. The occasional, unexplained outburst of German around them doesn’t help. Why are we even hearing German when most of the movie – set in German-occupied France – is in English? This only makes the result seem even more artificial. What language do Lucile and Bruno speak to each other?

Gallingly shallow

Given how charged the material and period are, it is galling to see “Suite Française” treat history in such a shallow way, offering no hint of ideological or emotional complexity. This is a rudimentary, immature melodrama set during one of the most crucial moments of the last century. Jews are mentioned only incidentally – on a poster that hangs on a wall while Lucile is passing by. The only character with a little more substance and presence is a farmer, Benoit (Sam Riley), who is less submissive than the others toward the Germans – and toward Madame Angellier.

The French have long struggled with the memory of their conduct under Nazi occupation, yet this movie, actually a British production, pales in comparison with even the weakest French films made about that period.

Dibb, whose previous work includes the equally colorless “The Duchess” (2008), directs “Suite Française” without the inspiration of a true artist. He is following directions, not creating a work with its own cinematic essence. The result does an injustice to the legacy of Irène Némirovsky. Even the final captions describing her fate seem like a dutiful, childish afterthought, which only emphasizes the frivolous nature of “Suite Française” – a work that adds nothing to the cinematic documentation of France during World War II.