In the realm of European war movies, there are quite a few hidden treasures to be discovered. There is for example the beautiful, romantic love story/war movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
There is the most shocking of all European war movies where two boys on either side – one is German, the other is Jewish – try to make sense out of an impossible situation in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
And there is the most expensive European movie ever made, the utterly spectacular Enemy at the Gates.
Does the latest take on World War II belong in the same esteemed category as the movies mentioned above? Yes and no. In terms of atmosphere and establishing the realistic feel of the movie, Suite Française does remarkably well, perhaps even too well for its own good. At times, the general feeling is very bleak and grim – as it’s supposed to be in a movie about war, I guess – but unlike the Dutch movie Zwartboek, Suite Française seems to rather distress the viewer than entertain. And that is where this movie’s biggest problem comes into light …
Of course, when you learn that the movie is based on an actual manuscript written during the war somewhere in the 1930’s, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the atmosphere is far more sober than most other war movies made. The story isn’t bad though, far from it. It tells the – obviously true story – about a French young woman who secretly starts a relationship with a German officer, after the latter one is assigned to live in the house with them. Initially, things are very tenseful and one doesn’t trust another – as they are enemies – but as time passes by, the French woman begins to see the German officer for what he truly is. When she finally discovers the man behind the German uniform, a beautiful yet very dangerous love affair begins to unfold.
It’s hard to say what is wrong with the movie. In truth, nothing really is. The script is good, the acting is overall great and the atmosphere is real enough to make you stand still with what actually went down during WWII and how people in the street, Jewish people even more so, lived every day in fear.
Perhaps it’s that this movie takes on a more documentary approach than a storytelling kind. Perhaps it’s the love affair that strikes you as a bit uneventful. Or how about the painstakingly slow rhythm of the dialogue scenes. It surely can’t be the result of the casting, because every single one is perfectly cast for their respective roles.
No, if we had to guess, we’d say the reason why this movie is one of the least interesting war movies ever put on celluloid, is because of the romance in the movie. The characters aren’t all that interesting to begin with. Somehow they don’t generally grow beyond the point that you really care for them, there’s just not enough depth in terms of character development as the story focuses a lot more on creating the general atmosphere of the Nazi’s taking over the town and the forbidden romance that takes it sweet time to slowly take shape. But, I ask you, what is romance if the characters involved are nothing more than a lazy afterthought once the end credits roll by?
Thank God for the casting, because the one thing that gives this movie something special are the actors involved. First and foremost there is the French young girl gracefully brought to life by Michelle Williams. She is a master when it comes to drama and why hide such a talent? When she cries or when she fearfully looks to the masses of German soldiers marching into her town, you cannot help but feel touched by the emotions drawn on her pretty, little face.
Much stronger is the lady of the house, Madame Angellier, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Although her role is reduced to little more than maternal guide or the person of whom you don’t always know for certain which way she’ll swing, she still manages to portray her character with enough momentum to keep her interesting the whole time through.
A special note – and not because he is Belgian like me – is Matthias Schoenaerts. Easily the best thing that has ever emerged of Belgium in terms of acting, the young Flemish actor takes on a not so easy part (after all, he has to make a stern German Nazi-soldier look warm and sympathetic), but he does it so beautifully that it quite saves the movie during the scenes that would otherwise be plain old boring. Schoenaerts – difficult name to pronounce for those who don’t generally speak Dutch, I know – has had experience before with dramatic roles and it shows.
The chemistry between both actors, Schoenaerts & Williams comes off quite naturally and colours the screen beautifully. Unfortunately, those scenes – beautiful as they are – also tend to be the ones that drag out the rhythm of the movie, and unnecessarily so.
Perhaps it all comes down to this. Suite Française is a good movie, but not one for those who wish to dream away in a slightly different reality. Or is that the very topic of World War II has finally reached its ultimatum? After all, they’re not making any more movies about Vietnam. Maybe movies about World War II are also out-of-date …
did you know?
Initially, Matthias Schoenaerts didn’t want to accept the role of a Nazi officer for moral issues, but he changed his mind after he read the book and thought, “if the writer loves the character so much, then I have to allow myself to love him as well”.
Give it to me straight:
Suite Française is a romantic war movie that focuses a lot more on the people during the war than the actual spectacle of guns blazing and cannons going boom! The movie has a very European-like atmosphere and although that generally tends to make the movie better, Suite Française doesn’t quite know how to turn this into an entertaining movie. Perhaps the movie was never meant to be entertaining and the book – written during the war itself somewhere in the 1930’s – is more of a window reflecting back on that horrible time. That would explain the rather documentary feel to it. Not that you get a shaky camera or a reporter commenting on the horrifying events of WWII – you don’t even get to hear the survivors of the war speaking of their mutual experiences (something the epic mini-series Band of Brothers actually did … and the show got all better because of it!) – but it seems like the movie is more bent on creating a distressful atmosphere than entertaining the audience, even with all the drama and bloodshed. It’s hard to say what Suite Française could’ve done to make it all better. Perhaps this is one of those stories that’s just not very interesting from a movie point-of-view. Those who cannot be blamed are the casting. Michelle Williams and our very own Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts deliver a stand-out performance and actually overcome the more tepid scenes of a very mediocre war movie.
Give it to me short:
Suite Française is based of a notebook containing a manuscript that was really written during the war in the 1930’s and unfortunately enough for the movie, the script as well as the general feeling of the movie feels that much out-of-date. The atmosphere is hyperrealistic and extremely bleak, but there’s not much to hold on to in terms of entertainment. There’s zero humour – okay, we get it, it’s a war movie – and even the wonderful acting performances of Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts cannot save this movie from becoming – pardon the pun – a bomb!