Starring: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts
In France in 1940 Lucile Angellier (Williams) awaits news of her husband fighting in the war and lives with her domineering mother-in-law (Scott Thomas) whose ruthless approach as a landlady to the local villagers makes her and the kind hearted Lucile extremely unpopular. After France surrenders and becomes German occupied a regiment of German soldiers soon move into the village staying as uninvited guests in the villagers homes. Staying at Lucile’s house is the high ranking Bruno Von Falk (Schoenarts), and the two find an undeniable connection that leads to a passionate affair that threatens both their lives.
A true story that is undoubtedly genuinely powerful does not automatically translate into a powerful film. Well, Suite Français is unfortunately a perfect example of this as though the story is based on a memoir and contains in its narrative a story that has raw power due to its setting and the fact it is true, it does feel that those that made it did so with a huge level of complacency. Based on a bestselling novel, I have no doubt that Suite Français is a superb and heartbreaking book. Likewise I of course have no idea what has been included, left out or added into the film, but film is a completely different medium to literature (one of the reasons I hate the phrase “not as good as the book”). It should never be underestimated that to bring a story to life on the screen and explore its potentially powerful themes with the right amount of rigour to provide engaging characters is extremely difficult to achieve, and requires all the creative elements involved with a film to be just right.
Well, though Suite Français may be very well made the raw power of its source material and all the personal conflicts its characters experience are almost buried by the extremely flat script and excessive production values. Feeling like a Sunday evening TV drama, Suite Français has an abundance of characters and subplots, but none are ever developed properly and the script gives way to clunky clichéd lines and a feeling of melodrama that often feels forced and contrived.
The narrative itself certainly contains its fair share of contrivances that sometimes do stick out like a sore thumb as they hurry along the plot in the brief running time of 107 minutes, but what is frustrating is how the narrative treats its characters. So many of the film’s characters have potentially powerful stories, but the narrative frustratingly hints at some great character development only to completely forget about the character if it is convenient.
With so many characters that have their own stories, if Suite Français were to examine these properly then it needs to be a TV series, but if it is to be a 107 minute film then its writer and director need to prioritise and they really fail at doing this; making for a film that is often frustrating, sometimes boring and ultimately quite unsatisfying. If Suite Français were fiction it would be a highly forgettable melodrama, but given the fact it is based on a true story just emphasises just how much of a missed open goal this film is. There should be genuine tension as many characters face deep emotional conflict, but the lack of real character development and the flat script struggles to portray this on screen. Ultimately Suite Français simply feels like a story we have seen many times before, but told far better and more convincingly in many other films, and the fact that is a true story means that should reflect very badly indeed on those that made it!
What is even more frustrating is that the film wastes the talents of its cast; Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts are two superb talents but have every little on screen chemistry and just cannot make what feels like a contrived love story seem convincing at all. Meanwhile the likes of Kristin Scott Thomas and Margot Robbie are completely wasted in frustratingly underdeveloped roles that are very much at the mercy of the narrative. The stand out is Sam Riley as a local farmer, though his character is very much a plot device, his performance does give emotional depth to the character.
Though the admittedly handsome production values do provide some good moments and there are some genuinely tense and powerful scenes such as an early scene as German bombers attack or a scene involving the town’s viscount (Lambert Wilson – excellent in his limited screen time), and the raw power of the source material does threaten to escape from the strangulation of the flat and lazy script, but on the whole Suite Français is a frustratingly dull and unsatisfying over produced melodrama.
A prefect example of how to take raw and powerful real life source material and turn it into an over produced and badly written piece of contrived melodrama; Suite Français frustrates and bores in equal measure, which is a real shame given its source material.