Monday, 16 March 2015

Suite Francaise (3¾ Stars)

The film takes place in a village called Bussy, 20 miles from Paris, in 1940. I didn't realise until the end of the film that it's a true story. It was written shortly after the events by a French Jewess who lived in the village after fleeing from Paris, but it wasn't published until 60 years later when her daughter finally discovered what was contained in her mother's notebook.

The main character is Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams), who lives in a large mansion in Bussy with her mother-in-law, a wealthy land-owner referred to only as Madame Angellier. Her husband has left to fight against the Germans, but when Germany conquers Paris in June 1940 she begins to despair that he's still alive. At first the war seems far away, but Bussy is overrun by a stream of refugees from Paris, and shortly afterwards a German regiment is posted in the village. Each household has to put up a German soldier, and as the owner of the largest house Madame Angellier is assigned the highest ranking German office, Lieutenant Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts).

The Germans are the enemies, and Lucille expects to have an inhuman monster living in her house. She's surprised when she meets a highly sensitive man who spends the evenings sitting at her piano composing a piece of music that he calls the "Suite Francaise". A romance develops between the two.

The film is a very honest portrayal of the situation during the German occupation of France. It's usual for the opposing sides in a war to demonise one another, but the fact is that the soldiers who fight for a country are just normal men who have more in common with the enemy soldiers than they do with their warmongering leaders. This is especially the case if the soldiers have been conscripted. While I lived in Germany I had a friend whose father had been part of the occupying army in France. His father was a religious man, and while in France he had visited French churches, sitting side by side with the enemy. War is something that divides people who would otherwise have been friends.

I enjoy films based on true stories, even if they lack the tidy resolution of purely fictional films. Real life never ties up loose ends, and there's rarely a happy ending. My only real criticism of the film is that the romance isn't as tender as the picture above suggests. When Lucille and Bruno are together they seem to be driven by lust rather than love. That clashes with the love of classical music that first draws them together. This must have been an interpretation of the film's screenwriters, because I doubt that the authoress knew the couple well enough to know that when in private they were tearing one another's clothes off to have a hasty fumble.

My praise goes out to Sam Riley, who is barely recognizable as the French farmer Benoit. His wife Alexandra Maria Lara plays a small role as a Jewish refugee, probably the authoress herself. Tom Schilling ably portrays the swaggering German lieutenant Kurt Bonnet. He's fast developing into one of Germany's top actors. Heino Ferch, probably my favourite German actor, plays a small role as the commander of the troops stationed in Bussy. Matthias Schoenaerts is a Belgian actor who is currently making a breakthrough into the American market, and he certainly has the talent to go all the way to the top. But all the other actors are eclipsed by Michelle Williams. After all these years I still associate her with the TV series "Dawson's Creek", which was her first big role at the age of 18. I never realised that she would develop into such a competent actress. She has a cool composure that makes her able to express emotions with the slightest change of facial expressions.

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