I always keep an ear out for foreign references in English – it’s an occupational hazard. This week the news headlines were full of foreign, mainly French, words. Apparently Jeremy Clarkson’s cortege caused a fracas as it was passing through Leicester, because the aiguillettes on the horses’ regalia were by Dolce & Gabbana, which Elton John had told us all to boycott, because they are synthetic. Or something.
How fitting then that I went to see Suite Française, a French film, or rather a British/French/Belgian film set in France during German occupation, based on Irène Némirovsky’s 2004 novel.
The story of the manuscript is an even more harrowing tale than the fictional plot: The author wrote two novels and the outline of a third in the early 1940s, before she was sent to her death in Auschwitz for being Jewish. I like to imagine the manuscript languishing in a dusty, cobwebbed attic suitcase for the next half-century, which is pretty close to what happened: Némirovsky’s daughter only discovered it in the 1990s. It was published in 2004 to great critical acclaim, and became a major bestseller both in France and worldwide.
This film doesn’t look like it’s set to be a big blockbuster, two clues being that there was only one (very late) showing a day, and my companion and I made up the total audience of two. Bit of an eerie experience, but at least I could give my full attention to what kind of Germans we might encounter here, all in the name of research, of course.
The film centres on a mother and daughter-in-law, the two Mmes Angelliers, but so as to not cause confusion who is who, the young pretty one is called only by her first name, Lucile. Living in “the best house in the village” in Bussy, just east of Paris, earns them an – at first – unwelcome house guest: Bruno von Falk, a German officer, played by Sasha Baron-Cohen (not really). Lucile soon finds herself drawn to the former composer, despite his rather limited repertoire: he only seems to know one tune, the eponymous Suite Française, which he insists on playing incessantly. Both unhappily married to conveniently absent spouses, the doomed lovers try to not arouse suspicion, especially not from the haughty Mme Angelliers the elder. “I thought I was supposed to be the one everyone’s scared of” chuckles Bruno, crouching behind a hedge. Ahahahahaha! A German with a sense of humour! Whatever next?! Turns out, there’s no follow-up. In this film, the Germans do what they do best in war films: they shoot at civilian refugees. They trash the local mansion and have their wicked way with the village girls. They shout “Vot is your nehm” and “Pay-pahs” at checkpoints. One particularly nasty specimen gets his just come-uppance when he gets killed by farmer Benoît Sabarie, whom he tried to repeatedly humiliate. Hoorah! But Bruno is different. “I have NOTHING in common with these people”, he tries to get Lucile to understand. In fact, he seems almost as outraged at the defiling of a few hideous paintings and stuffy decorations by his fellow soldiers as at some true horrors that are going on right under his eyes.
True horrors, all caused by the awfulness of people. The Viscountess makes up a story saying that farmer Benoît threatened her with a gun, which backfires badly (sorry!) as it leads to Benoît shooting the German officer, and then eventually to her husband being executed in Benoît’s place, because, the Germans decide, SOMEONE’S got do die here! And just be grateful it’s only one of you, not five as decreed by the even nastier Nazis above! Everything’s relative, you see. And with that, the Viscount stoically accepts his fate, looking death – in the shape of a firing squad – straight in the eye.
The good people of Bussy don’t all turn out to be pillars of the community, though. They bombard Bruno with an unlikely yet powerful weapon, directed at their own neighbours: letters. Old and new grievances are dug out, embellished or made up entirely and put to paper. Even Lucile finds more than she bargained for (as you do in movies) when she discovers someone had written in (why?!) with information revealing her husband’s affair and illegitimate daughter. Sounds like the Stasi would have had a field day recruiting in this village! Ah, well, never mind Lucile, you’ve got Bruno now, the musical, cultured, humorous, handsome, non-Nazi-ish German!
Or is he?! One of the film’s themes is not so much the ‘us and them’, goodies versus baddies, but rather the question of what makes ‘the other’. “They’re just like us”, exclaims an enthusiastic Bussy maiden, before disappearing into the bushes with one of them. Later, when her new boyfriend treats her and her family with unnecessary violence whilst searching for Benoît, who’s gone on the run, she’s not so sure any more. The uptight Mme Angelliers, quelle surprise, turns out to be not so bad after all: though an offence punishable by death, she joins forces with Lucile in hiding Benoît from the Germans and helping him escape to Paris to join the resistance. Benoît seems to have seven lives, as even Bruno, motivated by his love for Lucile, ends up coming to his rescue, never mind the German’s dead Wehrmacht colleagues strewn around the roadblock, mowed down by Lucile and Benoît. Ah, l’amour… Meanwhile back in the village, Mme Angelliers has taken a liking to the business of hiding people and has replaced Benoît with little Jewish girl Anna as the latest resident of the secret room behind the linen cupboard. She just knew that place would come in useful some time! Hopefully Anna will know better than to smoke non-German cigars, which nearly led to Benoît’s discovery, if Bruno hadn’t intervened, again. Eight lives!
It doesn’t end well, though, as you may have guessed – it never does. I would have really liked to see Lucile’s husband return Poldark-style and a complex, Franco-Germanic love-triangle to ensue, accompanied by the hauntingly simple piano motif of Suite Française – but then, everyone has enough trouble in their lives already.
I left the cinema with a strange feeling that something was missing. It was only later that it dawned on me what it was: During the entire film, not a single word of French was spoken. Dommage.