Suite Française centres on the relationships between French people and their German occupiers during the Nazi occupation of France from June 1940. The film is based on a novel written by Jewish author Irène Némirovsky. It was one of a series of five she planned to write, but was unable to complete, as she was taken from her hiding place in Paris in 1942 and eventually murdered in Auschwitz. Her daughters had the novel published in 2004 to international acclaim.
The story revolves around two main characters: Lucile Angellier, wife of a prisoner of war, is trapped living with her austere mother-in-law in one of the finest houses in the French village of Bussy; and Bruno von Falk a German officer billeted there. An unlikely passion grows as their shared interests and sympathies become more evident. Bruno was a composer before the war and joined the army as part of a military family rather than as a member of the Nazi Party, while Lucille loves playing the piano and listening to his music. As they spend more time together their feelings grow, but their love remains unstated as the impact of their situation intervenes.
The brutality of the occupation is never far away. The early scenes of refugees escaping Paris, spanning miles of narrow country roads, being attacked by the Luftwaffe flying low overhead are very powerful. At the same time Nazi propaganda leaflets are dropped from the sky reassuring the French that the invaders will look after them. The marching boots of Nazi soldiers ring loudly through the main street of the village. And most clearly of all the first act of the German army is to put up posters depicting Jews as the enemy of the world, and declaring a curfew for local inhabitants.
Although hostility to the Nazis is palpable among large sections of the village, there are some who are less resistant. The lord of the manor tries to forge an understanding with the occupying force. The impact of the war is seen as very different depending on what class you were in. When a farmer is caught stealing chickens he says that everyone knows how well the rich are living and they will be dealt with once the Germans have been defeated.
The film depicts the romance between Lucille and Bruno in a very understated and yet powerful way. This is helped by the excellent acting of both Michelle Williams and Mathias Schoenaerts. It is through looks and body language that you learn their desire for each other is growing. It is also Williams’s subtle performance which convincingly portrays how repressed her existence is both before and after the Nazis arrive.
The fact that the author could write about love and compassion and be so positive in such harrowing circumstances is a testament to her hope and faith in humanity. This is not a film about love conquering all, far from it. It is about people finding ways in whatever circumstances they find themselves to forge a worthwhile existence and to resist injustice.