It’s always difficult when one of my favourite novels is turned into a film; there’s the worry that the filmmakers will somehow have missed the point of the story, that they will have butchered it and twisted it until all that remains is some vaguely recognisable vestiges. For Suite Francaise, this was even more important: to preserve the legacy of its author Irene Nemirovsky, a French Jew murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War, and to remember the prescient tale that she conceived in the midst of war.
Suite Francaise begins as the Nazi occupation of France commences, as tanks roll through the village, bombs drop on the field and bitter resentment towards the enemy continues to grow. The film chronicles the love between a German officer (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a French woman (Michelle Williams), kindred spirits in a polarized, conflicting world of ‘them and us’, a world in which there is continual, strained battle between instinctual tribe loyalty and the hope that, underneath it all, all humans are really the same. The tension throughout is muted yet palpable, a thread running through every interaction, every fleeting glance. Williams particularly shines in her depiction of Lucile; an understated, eloquent performance that manages to say very little yet conveys much. Resisting the temptation to slide into stereotypes befitting the well-used trope of forbidden love, the characters are complex and compassionate.
Populated with a stellar supporting cast, including Kristin Scott Thomas and Sam Riley, the film is beautifully shot, delicately crafted and vivid in its historical detail. In such a rich, rewarding film, Williams’ narration of events jars; bringing unnecessary exposition and detail, it undermines the discrete, subdued way in which the protagonists’ affair has largely been conducted, one in which no feelings are mentioned and no expressions of love are exchanged. The ending too is disappointing, a divergence into an archetypal dramatic romance that does not suit the film. Ultimately, however, the film fulfils the promise of the novel and I can be satisfied that, in fact, Suite Francaise’s story is still as beautiful in film as when I first encountered it in the pages of a book.