REVIEW: Suite Francais (2015)

Suite_Francaise_posterUK Rating: 15

Release Date: 13th March 2015

Running Time: 107 minutes

Director: Saul Dibb

Genre: Drama

Starring: Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Margot Robbie, Ruth Wilson, Alexandra Maria Lara

This is not a film I would usually go and see, since, in a nutshell, it’s about a married Frenchwoman falling in love with a married German officer after the occupation of France during the Second World War: in other words, it’s one of those films that glamorise adultery. As a rule I avoid films like this since I don’t particularly wish to watch or support them. However, relationships between people who should be enemies always catch my attention – as a Christian the message that the enemy is just a person too is one I like to see put across. But I would probably still have decided against seeing ‘Suite Francais’ if one final fact hadn’t irresistibly piqued my curiosity.

It’s based on a novel. But it’s not a novel written in more recent years, like Anne Widdecombe’s compelling but morally dubious ‘An Act of Treachery’. It’s a novel written during the Second World War by Irène Némirovsky, a French author of Jewish descent. Two novels, in fact, the second unfinished, out of a planned series of five. But they were never completed because sadly Irène died in Auschwitz. The manuscripts lay unread in a suitcase in her daughters’ keeping, presumed to be a journal too harrowing to be read, until 1998. They were published as one novel in 2004 and perhaps not surprisingly with that history, became a bestseller.

And now a film. When I read about the history of the novel, I was astonished that anyone dared to write a novel about such a subject at the time of the occupation. But it makes sense if you see the film – can’t say more without spoilers. Also, the novel apparently followed many different characters, whereas the scriptwriters concentrated on a smaller group, thus making the treasonable relationship more prominent.

I thought the film was good but definitely not a masterpiece. It kept my tense attention throughout but fell rather flat at the end. The main character, Lucille, says little in the first part of the film, giving one scant idea of the deeper aspects of her character beyond her love of music and her sympathy with her poorer tenants, but creating a very poignant sense of a person trapped in a life they hate.

The more practical theologian in me couldn’t help wondering what a marriage tribunal would make of her marriage – she had only met her husband-to-be twice before the wedding and was put under considerable pressure by her father and by circumstances (her father’s approaching death) to agree to the wedding. On the other hand, she was not dragged to the altar and says that she, ‘convinced herself she was in love with him’. But that’s one for a marriage tribunal.

Very few references are made to the wife of the German officer, Bruno. The first reference led me to believe she was dead, he says that, ‘she doesn’t miss me any more, not now,’ the second made it clear she was alive, from which one had to deduce she was perhaps having an affair herself, and at any rate, did not love him. This carries the clear connotation so common nowadays, that it is therefore fine for Bruno to have an affair too. Sigh.

The film really excels in recreating a French village of the period, with all the tensions between the wealthier and poorer inhabitants, the tenants and the landlords, and it was from these relationships that the most unexpected twist in the film comes. Satisfyingly, from a Christian perspective, it is a twist that takes a character presented as a weak, near ‘baddie’ and makes them the focus of the audience’s sympathy. It is also a keenly painful lesson in the unintended consequences of telling lies.

Overall, I would hesitate to recommend this film too highly due to the benevolent view it takes of adultery. As a film, it is good, but the ending, though happier than one might have expected for some of the characters, is very underwhelming, with an irritating ambiguity as to the fate of a main character.

Sex/Violence/Profanity? There is a (visually) fairly discreet adulterous sexual scene, a more graphic pre-marital sexual scene viewed from a distance and some naked men viewed from a distance. There is some relatively unbloody violence including a war scene and an execution. I don’t recall much in the way of swearing. Apologies if I’ve forgotten anything. UK rating is 15.

Have you seen this film? What did you think?

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