If you want to see what people are truly made of, start a war.
I went into this film with very little foreknowledge. I knew that it was based on a sequence of books which had been written during the German occupation of France in WWII, and that the author was killed in a concentration camp with only the first two parts (of five) completed – all of which casts a long shadow over the events of the story, of course – but I didn’t know much about the actual plot of Suite Française.
This is a romantic film without very much romance. This has led to some negative reviews – Peter Bradshaw over at The Guardian says that the ‘love affair has all the passion of a damp haddock on a slab’. This, I think, misses the point of the film which, while marketed as a sort of star-crossed lovers affair, is actually doing something slightly more interesting.
Our hero, Lucille Angellier, has married into a family of rentiers. Her husband is away at war, and her mother-in-law insists on high rents from their tenants; Lucille, on the other hand, is a ‘nice’ landlord, and wants to be friends with the poor farmers she parasitises.
In the opening minutes of the film we are shown some stock footage of the fall of Paris. This is the extent of the coverage of the first of the books; Suite Française is based primarily on the second novel, Dolce. Soon, refugees from the capital find themselves in the small town of Bussy; Madame Angellier takes the opportunity to raise her rents. Soon after, France surrenders and a regiments of German soldiers take up residence in the town.
‘I’ll be damned if I’ll live by German time’, says the elder Angellier, but of course she has no choice: Lieutenant Bruno von Falk’s very first action is to change the house’s clocks. All her upper-class indignation means very little in the face of an occupying army.
It does mean something, however. Von Falk is very polite, very charming – a ‘nice’ Nazi. Because of his delusion that he is a good person, von Falk tries to charm his way into Lucille’s pants; his ‘nasty’ counterpart, Lieutenant Bonnet, who is billeted at a farmhouse, makes it entirely clear that he intends to rape his hostess.
And, naturally, the wealthy families horde food while their tenants go hungry.
Fairly early in the film von Falk says something along the lines of ‘the actions of an individual are insignificant’ (my apologies; this film is very new at the time of writing, and I can’t remember the exact quote). This evokes the image of the fasces, from which the word Fascism is derived: one stick can be easily snapped, but many bound together are strong. There is some truth there, though naturally the character doesn’t recognise it, and the film seems dedicated to proving this wrong.
Von Falk seems like a nice person; he even believes himself to be a good person. When his regiment, in events we learn of during conversation, massacred stragglers from Paris, he didn’t fire any shots. (Of course, this is irrelevant – he’s part of the Nazi military machine, and that makes him responsible for the actions of his comrades.) He struggles with the ~moral compromise~ of his situation, but ultimately he still gives the orders, he still shoots (relative) innocents, and he does not lift even a single finger to help the Jewish refugee that his men capture during the search for a fugitive.
Lucille is intrigued by this man, and physically attracted to him. She rationalises this by thinking that, perhaps, she loves him; he rationalises his desire to get his end away in similar ways. This appears, if one is primed by the marketing material, to be simply a failed romantic arc, but I don’t think it’s anything of the kind. Lucille realises that, in spite of her feelings towards him, she could never be with one of the enemy.
Now, this is not a perfect film by any means. It’s well acted and competently shot, but… just very slightly incoherent (yes, yes, I know – pots and kettles and all that). It offers interesting looks into provincial French life, a little examination of class, of the compromises of occupation… and then doesn’t really follow through. In this age of three-hour super-hero CGI-fests I don’t often say this but: this film could benefit from being a lot longer. The ending works fairly logically from what exists so far, but I find it thematically disappointing. The intention is clearly to show that von Falk was wrong with his line – individuals do actually matter – but…
Well. The Nazis were defeated by collective action. By armies and mass industry. The actions of individuals weren’t quite irrelevant – a life saved is a life saved, and the murder of a Fascist is its own reward – but they weren’t as all-important as this sort of film would have us think. And, more importantly, doing one good thing doesn’t balance out the bad in your life, whether you’re an abusive landlord or Nazi soldier.
Anyway. Suite Française is a pretty good film. It hints at a much better story than what we actually see, which can be frustrating, but it basically mostly works.