Directed by Saul Dibb
Based on the novel by Irene Némirovsky
Screenplay by Matt Charman and Saul Dibb
Michelle Williams as Lucile Angellier
Kristin Scott Thomas as Madame Angellier, her mother-in-law
Matthias Schoenaerts as Oberleutnant Bruno von Falk
Tom Schilling as Lieutenant Bonnet
Sam Riley as Benoît Labarie
Ruth Wilson as Madeleine Labarie
Lambert Wilson as The Viscount (who is the mayor)
The story behind the story behind the book behind the film is as interesting or more interesting than the film itself. Irene Némirovsky was a French writer. She was Jewish and planned a series of five novels centred on the German occupation of France. The special thing about them was that she was writing them during the occupation between 1940 and 1942, so they were probably the earliest accounts in fiction, and she wrote them in tiny writing in notebooks. She completed two novels, then in July 1942 she was arrested, and she died in Auschwitz soon afterwards. The notebooks were not read until 1998, because her daughters thought them a diary and that it would be too painful to read. The two were published in one volume as Suite Française in 2004 and became a bestseller.
Némirovsky was a successful published author between the wars. She has been accused of being a Jewish writer, pandering to anti-semitism in some of her dozen pre-war novels. She later wrote for right-wing magazines, and became a Catholic in 1939. Suite Française has autobiographical elements … she and her husband fled Paris to a village as the Nazis approached. She was arrested by the Vichy French, as was her husband. Fortunately their daughters had been sent further away, survived and found the notebooks.
The film had extensive trailers and I’d guess was expected to be a much bigger movie than it turned out to be. I have a sneaking suspicion that the title did it no favors … as soon as the public see a cedilla under the “c” in Française (a French word!), they fear subtitles, and English-speaking audiences are not fond of subtitles. It is in English so their fears are unfounded. Subtitles are used when characters are speaking German, and annoyingly were straight over the film rather than a black boxed area … meaning that print disappeared behind some coloured areas.
It takes place in a village / small town called Bussy and the central character is Lucile (Michele Williams). She lives with her mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) as her husband Gaston is in the French army. They live in a large house and are introduced collecting rent from their farmer tenants. On the way home, they encounter roads full of refugees from Paris, and the road full of civilians is then bombed and strafed by German planes.
A German unit arrives in the village, and Bruno, an Oberleutnant (first lieutenant), is billeted at Lucile’s house. Another German, Bonnet, is billeted with their tenant farmers, Benoît and Madeleine. Meanwhile at the large manor house down the road drunken Germans carouse and entertain female collaborators.
Bruno at the piano: Windham Hill and New Age Music long before its time
Bruno, their unwanted German guest is a composer. Fortunately not a Wagnerian composer, but had he survived the war, he could have made a fortune recording solo piano pieces for the Windham Hill label, or perhaps meditative piano CDs for sale in your local crystal or health food shop. Matthias Schoenaerts looks so German that he’ll find hotel receptionists greet him in German before he even speaks. He is actually Belgian. There was an odd note there too … he describes himself as a composer. Positive. Then he says he’s been in the army for four years. It’s 1940. Sounds like a career soldier rather than a conscript to me.
Watch out, Lucile! There’s a German behind you!
Bruno and Lucile fall in love … she has discovered that Gaston is unfaithful and has a love child. Bruno woos her with a short piano transcription which she plays. There’s a lot of tension in the story, though surprisingly the tensest moments are fear of the mother-in-law discovering their passion, rather than war. There’s some collaboration on view … the women seem strangely moved watching the muscular and shirtless Germans washing in the village square.
Well, they hadn’t seen a shirtless bloke for months.
The other German officer, Bonnet, over at the farm, is intent on seducing Madeleine. Well you know the rhyme … Three German officers crossed the Rhine, parlez-vous? f*cking the women and drinking the wine … I believe it dates back to World War One. Benoît justifiably shoots him dead and flees. The German commander orders a search, saying he will shoot the mayor in 48 hours if Benoît is not found. He explains that he’s being Mr Nice Guy because his commander told him just to round up five men at random and shoot them in return for Bonnet’s death. I once did a political studies course on War & International Crisis, and apparently the Nazi habit of shooting five innocents (or later twenty or a hundred innocents) for each German killed during occupation was one of the few reasonably successful counter-terrorism strategies. Not that it won them any friends, and it all came back on them in the end.
Lucile decides to hide Benoît… and mother-in-law helps. They believe that with Bruno staying there they will not be searched. The mayor is executed by a firing squad, and Bruno as the officer in charge has to fire the final pistol shot to the head after the doctor finds the poor mayor quivering a bit. And they do search Lucile’s house, and Bruno diverts them … they smell tobacco and he says it’s his. Lucile gets travel papers from Bruno, so she can take Benoît to Paris by car. We see that Benoît’s place in the attic has been taken by the daughter of a Jewish woman who had been arrested.
But, unknown to Bruno, his dastardly orderly has noted ‘Search the car’ on the travel papers, and they are stopped at a checkpoint. Lucile and Benoît triumph and kill the Germans. Bruno arrives and helps them escape.
So we have a love story set in war. The film has incredible attention to costume detail. They found and copied authentic 1940s dresses and fabrics. The setting and costumes are as real as they can make them. The actresses had zero or minimal make-up- Madame Angellier retains a red lipstick, but Lucile is largely without cosmetics.
The unit prepares to leave. Bruno has his bike. Lucile is in danger!
In retrospect, you wonder about some military details. What is the German unit doing there? Would they really billet two officers away from the rest of them, on their own in private homes? I don’t know. The unit is much too big to be the occupying force for just this village … they probably outnumber the villagers … so we’d assume they’re on hold before going elsewhere. The end credits tell us that Bruno died in the war, and the unit has just had orders to move out (Africa? Russia? England? they wonder). The aerial shots of the German unit shows a lot of money in vehicle finding, but did they really have a holding company with two tanks, a couple of armoured cars and some trucks? It seems a bit mixed if they were on hold. You’d think infantry and armour would be in separate groups once the action was over, and they’re over-equipped for policing occupation. When the road gets strafed, they don’t use those classic Stuka dive bombers … maybe they used real planes, though I’d thought CGI for the image of several planes.
Occupation in World War II is an enduringly fascinating theme, though we tend to the Channel Islands for a lot of fictional accounts. Némirovsky was there. She wrote it while it was happening. That’s the importance of it. As with any Second World War film, I recall that my dad, who went from Normandy right to Berlin, would not allow my sister’s boyfriend to park his Volkswagen in our driveway. You watch this, and in spite of Bruno being a sweetheart, anguished by his role, and a pleasant composer, you see the point for his generation.
We both felt that it was ‘World War Two-Lite” (an accusation also leveled at The Book Thief … which is a far better film.) As far as novels about occupied Europe go, in the last year I’ve read then listened to the unabridged audio of Mal Peet’s Tamar set in Holland in the starvation winter of 1944 to 1945. It’s a greater story, and even though based on second-hand interviews with Dutch people who were there, it rings somehow truer to me. It has a much more vivid reprisal shooting by the Nazis too.