15 March 2015

Saul Dibb's 'Suite Française'

Films based on novels often disappoint those who read first and view second. So I should say that I haven’t read Suite Française, based on Irène Némirovsky’s unfinished sequence of novels and published in an English translation in 2006, but the film was disappointing enough in its own right.

Even now, after so many other traumas since 1945, from Dien Bien Phu to Charlie Hebdo, the years of the Nazi Occupation remain a raw memory in France. Not surprisingly, French films and TV dramatizations set during those dark years tend towards providing comforting myths of heroic resistance rather than portrayals of acquiescence, not always sullen. The few conversations touching on the Occupation that I’ve had with French people of my own generation (the one with parents who were young adults during the war) underline just how difficult a subject it remains. In her review of Suite Française in The Times, Kate Muir, an admirer of the book, concluded:
If I were the French, I’d get the rights back to Némirovsky’s work, and make a sophisticated movie in my own language.
Well nigh impossible, I suspect – that is securing the sophistication, not the rights which are in fact already with TF1, more or less France’s BBC1/ITV equivalent. According to IMDb, Suite Française is a UK/France/Canada production, was mostly filmed in Belgium and the director and much of the crew came from the UK. But while nuanced enough to avoid “Nazis all bad, French all good”, it still offers the “Germans mostly bad and even the odd good one flawed, French mostly good and even the odd bad one rising above themselves” mythical formulation beloved of French TV. I

It is obvious from the outset that this is going to be a film with a simple narrative – occupied France, young handsome German officer, young attractive French woman whose husband is away at the war - so just how is this going to end badly? And, as a drama, it unfolds well if not pacily; Matthias Schoenaerts as Leutnant Bruno von Falk and Michelle Williams as Lucile Angellier perform soundly in their parts. Kristin Scott Thomas provides a particularly stiff and icy mother-in-law foil to Lucile and Bruno, who has been billeted chez Angellier. (Why Scott Thomas should have complained on BBC1’s The Marr Show recently about a lack of parts for actresses of her age, I can’t understand – she turns up in posts here every six months). The film looks good but still conveys the horribleness of war and the tragedy of Occupation, despite its implausible conclusion. Belgium provides a convincing substitute for France and the interiors, bourgeois ou paysan, match anyone’s expectations of French Country Style. Whether the Wermacht equipment was strictly 1940 issue, I wouldn’t like to say, but I was a little puzzled by the exact period of the film, if not the location.

A little history for anyone interested. France and the UK declared war on Germany in September 1939; Germany invaded France (and the Benelux countries) in May 1940. The French government soon departed for Bordeaux and a partly evacuated Paris fell on 14 June 1940 (not 1941, as Kate Muir seems to think). France signed an armistice on 22 June and was then divided, as indicated in the map below, into Occupied and “Free” Zones, the latter being administered from Vichy in the centre of France.

So the film Suite Française is set in the summer of 1940 during and after the invasion and surrender of France. Note, however, that the deportation of the country’s Jewish population did not start until 1942, the year Némirovsky died in Auschwitz, and something which Scott Thomas fans should be aware of from Sarah’s Key (2010). At the start of Suite Française, its setting is given as “Bussy, Central France”, though some reviewers place the town east of Paris. Given the extended presence of the Wehrmacht (von Falk’s unit is replaced at the end of the film), Bussy would have been in the Occupied Zone, as was Burgundy where Némirovsky spent the period from 1940 to 1942 when she started writing her novel sequence. In reality, the French police and civil service were the main agents for the rounding up and deportation of the Jews in France, working with the Gestapo rather than the Wehrmacht.

This film will be released in France in a couple of months. I can’t imagine that its content will prove that controversial, but the language convention used might. As produced, the cast speak English instead of French and any German being spoken is subtitled in English. It is straightforward enough for German to be subtitled in French instead, but French characters speaking English and being subtitled in French … or will they have to be dubbed?  At least, Suite Française won’t present TF1 with the problems it had with Marcel Ophuls’ unsparing anti-mythical 1969 documentary about the Occupation, Le Chagrin et La Pitié.

The Reichsmarschall at the Channel
If my comments seems unsympathetic to the French, they aren't meant to be. The only sensible perspective from Britain, saved from the Nazis by 20 miles (33 km) of sea, has to be one of “There but for the grace of God …”. The Nazis’ intention - quite by coincidence a chillingly obvious reminder of it appears in the post before this one – was to invade the United Kingdom and subjugate its citizens to the will of the Third Reich just like the rest of Europe. To imagine that, if that had happened, the British would have behaved better than anyone else is an illusion, but at least we were spared a myth.

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