Suite Française movie review: enemy mine to love

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Suite Francaise green light

An immediate and intimate tale of forbidden romance and other complex emotions and contradictory obligations. This ain’t history but a very human now.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women; I’m a sucker for movies about WWII

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Suite Française for its representation of girls and women.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll measure. If you’re not a spammer or a troll, your comment will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately.
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Fri, Mar 13, 2015 4:39pm

For some reason I keep confusing this film with the upcoming “Far From The Madding Crowd” remake. I’m pretty sure it’s because Michelle Williams and Carey Mulligan look alike. I’m looking forward to seeing this flick, are you looking forward to seeing Madding Crowd?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  a
Fri, Mar 13, 2015 10:34pm

Matthias Schoenaerts is in that, too.

I’m neither hot nor cold on another version of *Madding Crowd.* Though it’s from director Thomas Vinterberg, so it could be interesting.

Fri, Mar 13, 2015 5:03pm

i loved the book; am really looking forward to the movie.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  bronxbee
Fri, Mar 13, 2015 10:35pm

No US release date yet, but supposedly sometime in 2015.

Sun, Mar 15, 2015 10:50am

I still divide films into Ebert-era and post-Ebert (finding that a film was made in time for Roger to review it can really make my day); however, I’m increasingly starting to divide them into Maryann-reviewed and not-(yet)-Maryann-reviewed. Thank goodness for you! :-)

reply to  Siri
Sun, Mar 15, 2015 7:55pm

P.s. I saw this with my 16-year-old daughter today, and we were both gripped and mesmerised throughout. Can’t wait to get it on DVD. Amazing story, beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, with a few moments that literally take your breath away.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Siri
Sun, Mar 15, 2015 8:29pm

I never even got to mention the opening sequence, with the refugees on the road from Paris. Intense!