Brought to the big screen after the recent discovery of Lucile Angellier’s memoirs from the Second World War, during the occupation in France, Michelle Williams takes on that role, of a introverted, lonely woman who lives with her mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas), constantly fearing for the life of her husband, who remains a prisoner of war. Though she is distracted by the countless Parisian refugees who move to their small town – who are then followed by German soldiers, who seek accommodation in the local’s own homes. Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts) moves into Lucile’s abode, and despite being the enemy, the pair form a close bond, vying desperately for warmth and affection amidst the barbaric savagery of the war.
Following on from Testament of Youth earlier this year, it’s intriguing to view upon the war from a different angle – from those left back at home. It’s a change of pace from the usual war movie set in the trenches, instead focusing on those fighting emotionally devastating battles of their own, with tales that are equally as poignant and profound. There’s an added, uncomfortable sense of ambiguity too, as we study how the women at home – the wives, mothers and daughters, all cope with not knowing where, or how their loved ones are coping, or if they’re even still alive. Credit must go to Dibb for balancing the romance with the horrors of war. It’s very easy to be flippant with the material and lose sight of the context when a romantic narrative takes precedence – but the director never compromises on the severity of war, and we always get a feel for the harrowing destruction taking place. We see the horrors, this is not a cuddles in the kitchen affair.
This complex piece deviates away from convention, which also extends to the portrayal of the local residents in this small town. There are factions amongst them, enemies and fractured relationships, and the same applies for the Nazis. It’s not just good versus evil, the lines are blurred and we see the human beings behind the facade. Even Lucile is not considered a hero, she’s flawed and many of the locals – such as Margot Robbie’s Celine, despise who she was given her wealth, and hate what she’s become – as they get wind of her affections for the German soldier living in her house. It puts the character on the back foot somewhat, which is another contributing factor into viewing forming an allegiance with her. What also helps tremendously in that regard, is the performance of Williams, who has such a gracious, alluring screen presence. She doesn’t even need to say anything, she acts with her eyes – a vulnerable, endearing and beguiling protagonist.
On a more negative note, the romance itself is not quite so easily investable, which proves to be something of an issue given the film hinges on it. It’s subtle and understated, and while that’s a good thing, there’s just not the chemistry between the actors, or that spark. They just feel like two lost, hapless souls in need of affection – it doesn’t feel genuine enough.
It’s now been 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, and yet this story feels as relevant today as it ever has. These tales are eternal, and despite the fact we may think we’ve explored every avenue and seen everything there is to see from this tragic war, Suite Francaise proves that there is always somebody else’s remarkable story still untold.