The story of how Irène Némirovsky’s novel Suite Française became known to the world is amazing. She wrote it as contemporary fiction inspired by the events she was living through — the defeat of France by the Nazis in 1940, and the subsequent German occupation — but then it was lost, packed away unread, until the 1990s, and finally published only in 2004. Némirovsky died before the end of the war, in Auschwitz in 1942, so she never knew how it would all end, and indeed her writing cannot even register knowledge of the very worst that the war would bring. So her fiction is a time capsule of the moment of its creation, reflecting the thinking and feeling of a time before any hindsight on the war was possible. It is not memory or history — it is now. Just a different now from our own.
I haven’t read the book — I plan to — but this intense and intimate film adaptation is personal in a powerful way like only a story told from Némirovsky’s unique perspective could be. I might be overselling it a tad, but in some ways Suite Française the film feels more like Casablanca — produced before the U.S. even got involved in the already ongoing war — than any other World War II movie made since, in its immediacy and its concentrated focus and its embrace of moral ambiguity at a point where future judgments about what would be seen as right and what would be seen as wrong were, well, still off in the future.
So when, here, the Germans march into the small French village of Bussy in June 1940, they are not the monster Nazis who loom over our 21st-century cultural — and pop-cultural — consciousness. (You know who isn’t mentioned here once? Hitler. Absolutely no one “heils” or snaps his heels or gives that salute that the weight of decades and the postwar revelation of inhuman horrors now makes us see as so very terrible.) They are conquerers and invaders, for certain, and bring a terrible uncertainty for the future with them… but they are also squads of vital and handsome young men bathing in the fountain in the village square within site of lonely — and, yes, horny — women who months earlier had sent their men off to fight. There’s barely a man left in Bussy who isn’t old or crippled. Until now.
Oh, not that there isn’t resentment! Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas: My Old Lady, The Invisible Woman) issues strict instructions to her daughter-in-law, Lucile (Michelle Williams: Oz the Great and Powerful, Shutter Island), that they are to utterly ignore the German officer who is to be billeted in their house. But Commander Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts: The Drop, Blood Ties) isn’t only a gorgeous blond Aryan god: he’s also polite, sensitive — later we learn he is deeply conflicted about his duties — apologetic for his intrusion, and prone to composing haunting music on the Angelliers’ piano (which, to be fair, he does demand the key to so he can play it). Lucile, despite her initial best intentions, ends up smitten.
What follows isn’t just about forbidden romance — not that they’re the only ones! — but also other complex emotions and obligations that seem contradictory even as one would strive to honor them all. Perhaps the best way not to spoil what happens is to share the reason why, it seems, Némirovsky’s daughters survived the war, weren’t sent to a concentration camp with their mother (which allowed one of them to hang on to what she thought were her mother’s personal journals, not novels, for decades): a Nazi officer apparently spared them because the little girls reminded him of his own daughters. That’s an act that could have been pulled from this story… which, perhaps, proves the greater truth of it.
“If you want to see what people are truly made of,” Madame Angellier says early on, “you start a war.” And so here we have people who are good or bad, courageous or craven, steadfast or sycophantic, and none of that has anything to do with nationality or a uniform (or lack of one). We have people who retain their humanity in a bad situation, and those who don’t, and sometimes it’s surprising who breaks which way! This isn’t the story of Lucile and Bruno so much as it’s the story of Bussy, and the drama of the human strengths and frailties that crop up when people are pushed to extremes. The fact that there is nothing black-and-white here makes it more moving and suspenseful than it might otherwise be, because help and horror can come from any direction. And does.