Directed by Saul Dibb / Written by Saul Dibb & Matt Charman / Starring Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas and Matthias Schoenaerts
Madame Angellier: I’m supposed to be the one everyone is afraid of.
Based on the novel written by Irene Nemirovsky and published 47 years after the author’s death in Auschwitz, SUITE FRANCAISE opens in the picturesque town of Bussy, France. As Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams) tinkers on the piano to the consternation of her mother-in-law, Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas), German soldiers roll into the town square. France is now occupied by the Nazis and the villagers must take the soldiers into their homes. High ranking officer, the handsome Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts) is sent to live with the Angellier women. At first, other than seeing rambunctious naked soldiers bathe in the lake, life has not changed for the inhabitants of Bussy. Pining for her absent husband, who may be a prisoner of war, and intimidated to the hilt by her overbearing mother-in-law, Lucille finds herself more and more attracted to the sensitive German soldier in their home as she hears him play soulful sonatas on the piano. As their romance progresses, secrets are revealed, both villagers and soldiers are killed, farmers become defiant and the irony of the movie’s title is revealed.
I can’t pinpoint exactly why I am underwhelmed by SUITE FRANCAISE. On paper, this is Oscar bait material. Williams more than adequately portrays the emotional turmoil her character goes through – from meek and compliant to passionate and rebellious – it should have, but doesn’t, pack a memorable wallop. The sexual chemistry between her and Schoenaert (so deliciously evil in THE DROP) is palpably hot, in a Harlequin romance fashion. Scott Thomas is letter perfect as the icy, tyrannical Madame Angellier but it’s a role I have seen her play too many times now. She is turning into a younger version of Maggie Smith: both are brilliant technicians and always incredibly watchable, but it’s the same mannerisms over and over again. Scott Thomas needs to do a Judd Apatow comedy. And soon. Whereas the concept of a sympathetic Nazi may have been a groundbreaking concept when the book was written in the 1940’s, it is now almost a movie cliché; Schoenaert elevates the thankless role with grace and originality, vacillating between charged testosterone and nuanced sensitivity. Equally memorable are Sam Riley and Ruth Wilson as the rebellious farmers in performances so wonderful I hope this movie lands them more substantial roles in the future. Director and co-writer Saul Dibb (THE DUCHESS) is clearly to blame for not being able to overcome the soap opera-ish elements of the story at hand. Perhaps he was afraid to explore the seamier underbelly of the story. The love affair should have been torrid. The Nazis were as threatening as muzzled, chained to the fence pit bulls. The movie looks and sounds pedestrian – the melodramatic score by the usually brilliant Alexandre Desplat is particularly cheesy and overbearing.
SUITE FRANCAISE ultimately suffers from the same malaise that THE BOOK THIEF did. It appears that when one takes on a renowned novel with the horrors of World War II as a subtext, there is no magic formula to make it work no matter how hard one tries to find one.