Starring Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts. Rated 14A. Now playing
The story behind Suite Française is, in some irreducible ways, more interesting than the movie it became. You see, the novel that became a bestseller 10 years ago sat in Denise Némirovsky’s possession for the previous five decades. She hadn’t read it before, convinced that it would be a heartbreaking diary of events leading up to her mother Irène’s arrest and subsequent death at Auschwitz.
Iréne’s manuscript was a kind of memoir, of course, although it contained the first two of an ambitious five-book cycle of novels lightly fictionalizing village life in rural France, during the initial stages of German occupation, in June 1940, leading into the development of an organized resistance. But the elder Némirovsky—apparently not always an admirable person before the war—was arrested in 1942, so her writing is etched in the fire of the moment, unilluminated by knowledge of further outcomes.
Some of that immediacy makes it to the screen, if dampened by an unfortunate inclination toward Harlequin romance. Written and directed by Saul Dibb, who previously went historical with The Duchess, the film pushes forward one of the author’s plot threads, about young Lucile Angellier. She’s played by Michelle Williams, who has just the right amount of innocence and grit as someone trapped in the country house of an imperious mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) who thinks her absent son is some kind of saint, but he ain’t.
After a frighteningly well-staged raid on refugees streaming away from Paris, the occupation itself begins slowly, with officers billeted in better households. That’s how the Angelliers end up with Lt. Bruno von Falk (Rust and Bone’s Belgian-born Matthias Schoenaerts) in the study, a former composer playing the piano that Lucile adores. You can see right away where that’s going.
Largely shot in Belgium, standing in for France, the film is adept at exploring how such a cultured man can be torn between personal connections and duty to a monstrous system. And it’s even better at showing a fearful town unravelling into petty rivalries. Ultimately, the most harm comes to the citizens who set bad things in motion.
Enriched by a uniformly fine, mostly British cast, the overall texture of collaboration and mixed loyalties is more compelling than the foreground story, burdened by syrupy music and Lucile’s voice-over narration, which adds precisely zero to the experience. So this Suite remains intriguing, if still unfinished.