Suite Française, 2015.
Directed by Saul Dibb.
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts, Margot Robbie, Sam Riley and Ruth Wilson.
During the early years of German occupation of France in World War II, romance blooms between Lucile Angellier, a French villager and Bruno von Falk, a German soldier.
We’ve seen romantic movies, we’ve seen war movies, and we’ve seen romantic movies set during a war so from the off Suite Française faces the unenviable task of setting itself aside from the rest. Thankfully director Saul Dibb’s keeps his film aimed squarely at the relationships between and evenly balances both love and war to ensure the film never runs flats or becomes to cliché ridden – something it could very easily have been.
France has become occupied by the Nazis and when a troop of German soldiers move in to the small town of Bussy a relationship begins between Lucile (Michelle Williams) and Lieutenant Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts). Yes, he’s an officer of the Third Reich and yes, she’s a married woman whose husband is fighting for France but a connection is made between the two which they cannot deny. Not all Germans were Jew-hating monsters between the years of 1939 and 1945, and people have affairs despite knowing they should not and Suite Française is, if anything, realistic and not clichéd in this respect.
Folk is a ‘good man’ despite his uniform and is following orders; we know what would happen to him if he did not, and the film rightly takes it for granted that its audience knows the repercussions of not toeing the party line. Lucile is a young woman, forced into marriage by her father and her husband’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas in her icy best), a landlord whom she lives with, is the antithesis of how she wishes to live her life. The oppression Lucile lives under day to day is made clear before the Nazis enter the town, and when a man shows her the attention and affection she’s been denied for years, we not only expect her to reciprocate, but crucially for the film’s success, we want her to be happy.
What elevates the film from the standard forbidden romance tropes, and what is the underlying theme of the story, is the moral conflict at the centre of everything these characters do. At no point are options clear for Lucile, Folk, or any of the villagers and this dilemma comes to a head in the final part of the film; Lucile’s friend is hunted for the murder of a Nazi Officer who had eyes on his wife. No one will take him in yet they all know him. The innocent town Viscount will be killed if the man is not found. Does Lucile take him in? Does she hand him over? Does she save the life of an innocent man? Does she spare Folk from having to lead the death squad? Does Folk help her in hiding the man? Despite the small scale of the story the consequences are life-altering, and it’s this focus which makes the film tick.
If this were set in 1850 Folk might be a land owner looking to buy the land of family and Lucile the young daughter who married into the family, and Dibb directs the film with a style which evokes the way traditional costume dramas are often done. So much yearning and desire between two people who are not supposed to be together, but where eye contact or the playing of a piece of music (the titular Suite Française) is like a physical act. Love itself is never mentioned and what Lucile and Folk have/had is not necessarily something you could label – it’s the thing we all desire, no matter what others may think or what stands in our way. A connection.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.