At least a month has passed since the last Harvey Weinstein-approved Nazi drama, so it’s time for another! As always, a Weinstein production is a handsome affair. How would the movie mogul be able to pander to Oscar voters otherwise? However, ‘Suite francaise’ is also such a tediously dull rendition of such overly familiar subject matter that it’s impossible to get too engaged.
Despite the disastrous results, the film at least springs from intriguing material. It’s based on the handwritten accounts of Irene Nemirovsky, who planned the book to be the first in a series about her struggles surviving World War II before her life was cut tragically short in Auschwitz in 1942. Her daughter found the memoirs and had them published in 2004, when they became a fascinating bestseller. Unfortunately, any of the authenticity of that beloved work was scraped off this irritatingly prestigious adaptation before hitting screens. The movie is shot through the soft haze of perfume commercial lighting and treats riveting true life events as button-pushing soap opera in a manner that robs them of any sense of their original power.
Michelle Williams stars as Lucille, the stand-in for author Nemirovsky. At first, you might think that she lives in the only all-English village in France during the Nazi occupation. Then it becomes clear that this is one of those movies where all French characters speak in English accents for no apparent reason. The irritating directorial choices from Saul Dibb (‘The Duchess‘) only get worse from there.
Lucille is a troubled young woman whose husband went off to war, forcing her to live with her prickly mother-in-law, Madame Angellier (Kristen Scott Thomas, a modern master of British prickliness), who seems to take delight in charging unfair rent to the struggling war-torn families in the area. When the Nazis come to town to make things worse, one dashing soldier named Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts) is required to live with Lucille and Angellier. Even though he’s a Nazi, he also loves music and being handsome, so Lcuille can’t help but fall for him. Along the sidelines are all sorts of similarly melodramatic tales, like a bitterly disabled and impoverished husband (Sam Riley) who seems destined to explode into violence, and a dirtied-up Margot Robbie campaigning for an Oscar purely through dressing down and putting on a British accent.
The film has bits and pieces that likely could have worked had they been approached with even a remote sense of grit or realism. Unfortunately, there’s none of that here. This is the type of movie where Margot Robbie’s poverty is communicated by her having dirt on her face and doing laundry in every scene, or where impossible Nazi/French love is depicted with all the sun-soaked subtlety of a particularly bad Nicholas Sparks adaptation. There’s not a single dramatic beat in the contrived screenplay that isn’t played out in overblown levels of emotion and no plot twist that isn’t visible from a mile away.
What Dibb and company have done is take a moving true story and transformed it into maudlin soap opera nonsense that robs that material of anything that made it appealing in the first place. The cast might be filled with famous faces being handsomely lit and well paid, but none of them do anything to register. Williams can be a remarkable screen presence, yet is lost in a cornball British accent that holds her back from developing any sort of character. Schoenaerts is such a dime store romance fantasy that it’s embarrassing to watch him swoon around scenes in a Nazi uniform. Only Kristen Scott Thomas delivers anything resembling a compelling performance. However, even she is just going through the motions of playing a prickly Kristen Scott Thomas type, so it’s not as if even her good work yields surprises.
There are definitely movies left to be made about WWII, but titles like ‘Suite francaise’ make it difficult to ever get excited about those prospects. That period of history has been pillaged for so many sentimental weepies that even the genre’s clichés have their own clichés. ‘Suite francaise’ is such an embarrassing exploitation of the fraught emotions of the era that it’s insulting to anyone who actually lived through that period to see their lives and tragedies reduced to this soapy nonsense. The fact that this particular film sprung from a true story makes it even harder to stomach. It would be one thing if the filmmakers were unapologetically trying to create a pandering WWII picture, but here they’ve actually taken intriguing material and whitewashed it down to the lowest common denominator. With a little luck, the movie will disappear from screens so quickly and unceremoniously that it won’t hurt the legacy of the source material. The people involved in that story have suffered enough. They don’t need this horrible movie tainting their legacy.