Suite Française (Saul Dibb, UK/ France/ Belgium, 2015)

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A satisfying if overly-controlled and ‘tasteful’ WWII drama about the Nazi occupation of a small town in France based on Irène Nérmirosky’s novel of the same name. Kirsten Scott Thomas is Madame Angellier, the judgmental upper-class matriarch whose absent and much missed son is fighting the very same people she suspects her not-good-enough-for-my son daughter-in-law Lucille (Michelle Williams) to be screwing around with. Mathias Schoenaerts is Commander Bruno von Falk, the sensitive and gorgeous Nazi who writes the beautiful music that makes Lucille fall in love with him (I kid you not).

Suite Française is the kind of film that was being made in France in the 80s ( Le dernier metro, Aux revoir les enfants) and then felt charged with some kind of political or social importance; like collaboration with the Nazis was a shameful history and then current cultural conflict the nation needed to discuss or redress. Here you wonder why they bothered to make it at all; or rather why THESE particular people made it. Who made the film, how they made it and when they made it has resulted in a kind of cultural deracination that makes it feel less vital and dramatic, at least when seen in an English context, and brought to the fore the melodramatic elements rendered rather safe by the controlled prettiness of look and approach.

It is nonetheless worth seeing for the actors: Kirsten Scott Thomas, Lambert Wilson and Harriet Walker give performances that are sketched out in broad stylised strokes and coloured in with moments of great subtlety and delicacy, the kind only great actors with age and experience can command when, as here, they take the trouble to.

Schoenaerts has a quality of carefulness and attention to detail. He’s very good on internal conflict and well conveys both controlled action and uncontrolled passion. He’s also very sexy in the role and we understand why Lucille eventually succumbs. I love Michelle Williams also but her careful and transparent performance here is almost too one-note; ‘true’ but all done in the same ‘naturalist’ style, like a singer being very fluid but only within a small range of notes.

A film that speaks of great depth of feeling, uncontrolled passion and of the difficulties and great sacrifice involved in making moral choices but one that doesn’t convey them, or at least not in a way that gets audiences to feel anything approaching that which the characters themselves do.

Saul Dibb directed.

José Arroyo

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