Given that its source material is a beloved book with a potent history, the film adaptation of Suite Française (2014) is a sincere disappointment. Its a middling exercise in schmaltz, often overflowing with heavily wrought dialogue and oft-deployed melodramatic tactics. Despite two leads of notable standing, this is a misstep for all involved. Sadly, Suite Française seems to be headed for a lifetime of relegation to ‘rainy Sunday home viewing’ fare. Its 1940 in a rural French town and Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams) lives with her domineering step-mother, Madame Angellier (the always watchable Kristin Scott Thomas).
Lucille lives a cloistered life, resigned to dwelling in her mother-in-law’s home while her husband is away at war. When German troops take up residence, Lucille’s world is turned on its head. The town is subject to German laws and troops take up residence in various prominent homes in town. Lieutenant Bruno von Falk (established Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts) is assigned to the Angellier residence. His presence stirs unknown feelings within Lucille, beginning to blur the division between friend and foe. An devastating form of subterfuge throws all the lives of the townsfolk into disarray and soon Lucille is forced to reckon between her desire and her duty if she’s to save those she loves.
This is a story built on the now-threadbare plot device of opposites attracting. Throw in a little Second World War-era dramatics and the stage is set for nothing short of painfully predictable storytelling. Posturing a meek, unfulfilled housewife opposite a stalwart army officer (even if he is the enemy) feels like familiar territory. Even the supporting cast of townsfolk are all vague tropes: a youthfully wanton woman, the hard scrabble-yet-noble farmers, the selfishly wealthy gentry. All feel like familiar types that are narratively perfunctory with minimum characterisation. What seems to be one of the larger disservices is the misuse of leads Williams and Schoenaerts. Both have proven their dramatic worth, respectively, in titles like Blue Valentine (2010) and Rust and Bone (2012). Both actors have continued to show us that they are skilled at genre-performances and period acting and here they seem to flail. They are an attractive couple, to be sure. Their chemistry is present and felt. But they are victims at the hand of syrupy dialogue and thoroughly predictable narrative devices. Suite Française fulfils its duty as a heart-tugging drama. Their is no shortage of bereft feelings in times of war and achingly (near-adolescent) desires towards the forbidden that help to fuel this story. But it is a film that may become the film you turn to watch on a slow afternoon or a rainy day, a film to pass the time and stir a few tears. Come prepared for some sincere theatrics, viewers. You will not be left wanting.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem