Book and Movie Review: Suite Francaise

Suite Francaise, the movie, follows the eponymous novel’s second novella – Dolce – describing the impossible love between a German officer and a French POW’s wife.

Writer Irène Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz before finishing the novel. What has reached us, though, is heartbreaking and beautiful, both on screen and on page.

Yes, it’s a story about love. But isn’t everything?

It’s not a romance novel, though.

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You might want to listen to this while on the topic, it’s just too good

The premise is not that unique or moving. The context it was written (or rather started) in is – the author lived through the events.
She describes them with the panache of the Russian masters, imbibing the narrative with complicated fragments of the human soul. The thematic lens of her discussion on human nature is, naturally, the war and particularly its wastefulness. Suite Francaise, especially Storm in June, is packed with characters, which makes it a bit impersonal and hard to push through, but keep in mind that this was meant to be a five-part novel, a Beethoven’s Fifth (just like Nemirovsky’s favorite War and Peace). It would have been a voluminous book for which the first novella is obviously a set up. The author’s notes at the end refer to future plot developments and their place in the book’s message – that war is wasteful; that it bares the human soul.

The movie mostly follows the second novella, only briefly summarizing Storm with a scene of the fleeing crowds and the air raid. The story then closes on the two protagonists – Lucile, living with her mother-in-law, while her husband is at a POW camp; and the Nazi officer billeted with them.

As captivating as Kristin Scott Thomas’s and Michelle Williams’s performances are, it was the German officer that is most interesting – both in the book and in the movie.

Matthias Schoenaerts delivers an astounding layered performance as Bruno von Falk, not surprising, but exciting in the context of his previous roles (I had seen him in Rust and Bone and Bullhead). He contrives to bring vulnerability and humanity to the character, without making him an unwilling victim of circumstance, a saint among monsters. Lucile’s love for him is utterly believable, yet the impossibility of it never fades in any sort of glorification of the conquerors.

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This is entirely the Bruno from the book, too. Nemirovsky is very deliberate in affirming that all her characters are victims to human nature in its best and its worst manifestations, conquerors and conquered alike. Knowing her fate, we can’t but see this objectivity and her loving portrayal of this German officer as a tragedy in its own right. Yet this knowledge gives even more substance to her portrayal of war. Was her empathy for the failings of both the French villagers and the German soldiers due to some unworldly hope that goodness will prevail on both sides; or an illusion that war is abstract and human nature is not? If she had survived, would the Bruno of the book have remained the same?

Beyond plot and theme, Suite Francaise poses fundamental questions about the circumstantial context of literature vis-à-vis the timeless problems it discusses; about its capacity for objectivity and its search for the human in the bestial.
In itself alone, the novel/movie paints a picture of complex characters, linked by the impossibility of choice and driven by the tragic intrinsic ability of humans of all classes and all nations to fall in love.

P.S: I should mention her invaluable notes, published in the appendix. Such insight into the creative process of a prolific novelist writing about a century-defining war during its course is a true treasure for an aspiring writer.

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