J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Suite Française: American Viewers Finally Get to See the Irene Nemorivsky Film

Irène Némirovsky was an international bestseller in her own lifetime, but today she is best known for an unfinished posthumous publication. Of Russian-Jewish heritage, Némirovsky was denied citizenship by France and ultimately deported to Auschwitz, despite her fame and status as a Catholic convert and political conservative. Her tragic fate echoes throughout the pages of the incomplete novella sequence belatedly published in 2004. Ironically, the film adaptation has had a circuitous fate as well. Two years after Saul Dibb’s Suite Française (trailer here) opened throughout most of Europe, the Weinstein production finally bows this Monday on Lifetime.

Dibb and co-screenwriter solely adapted Dolce, the second novella set in the provincial village of Bussy, but if viewers want to get a sense of the “French Exodus” depicted in Tempête en Juin, they can check out Christian Carion’s admirable Come What May. Lucille Angellier and her stern mother-in-law Madame Angellier are surprised by the sudden arrival of domestic war migrants from the cities, but the property-holding Madame quickly moves to exploit it. The next wave of visitors are even more disruptive. Those would be the occupying National Socialist military forces.

Like every large household, the Angelliers are forced to quarter a German officer. In their case, they are relatively fortunate to host Commander Bruno van Falk, a music composer somewhat suspect among his comrades for his perceived lack of enthusiasm for their Nazi business. However, as the heretofore loyal wife develops an ambiguous friendship with her boarder, it leads to friction with her suspicious mother-in-law and their resentful neighbors. Yet, their sort of affair will give the younger Madame Angellier cover for sheltering a rebellious fugitive.

Frankly, it is utterly baffling how an adaptation of a legit bestseller related to the Holocaust starring Michelle Williams, Kirstin Scott Thomas, and a pre-Wolf of Wall Street Margot Robbie in a small supporting role could be shelved for so long. If the Weinstein Company were publicly traded, we’d say dump your stock now, because if they can’t market a film like this, they are in serious trouble.

Granted, Dibb’s Suite is not a likely Oscar contender, but it is solidly presentable. As a point of comparison, Carion’s film is probably half a star better, but solely due to Matthew Rhys’s standout supporting turn, for which there is no equivalent in Suite. Still, Scott Thomas is absolutely pitch-perfect as Madame Angellier, for reasons that ought to be intuitively obvious. Nobody does upper-crust snobbery better than her, but she also makes her redemptive moments exquisitely poignant.

As her daughter-in-law, Michelle Williams is not exactly dazzling in any respect, but she develops some effective chemistry with Matthias Schoenaerts. Robbie actually makes a bit of an impression as Celine, the village trollop, but it is Sam Riley who really lost out from the film’s dithering non-release. He does some of his best, most intense work as Benoit, the resentful tenant farmer itching to join the resistance. On the other hand, it is frustrating to see Claire Holman (the under-recognized X-factor, who made Inspector Lewis such a reliable viewing pleasure) woefully under-utilized as Marthe, the loyal servant.

During a slow week, Suite would have been a valid option in theaters, so it is well worth watching on basic cable. It has high production values and big name cast-members (also including Lambert Wilson, switching from French to English at a moment’s notice and Luther’s Ruth Wilson). Most importantly, it has Scott Thomas, who is just about enough to recommend any film on her own. There is intrigue and romance, but Dibb always treats the macro historical tragedies in a respectful manner. Easily recommended for mainstream audiences, Suite Française premieres (finally) this Monday night (5/22) on Lifetime.

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