This is my review of Suite Francaise [DVD] .
The lukewarm reviews lowered my expectations for a film which proved to be moving, over and above the poignancy of knowing the fate in a Nazi concentration camp that awaited the Jewish author Irène Némirovsky. She lived long enough to see the humiliation of the rapid French defeat in 1940, the brutal German bombardment of the helpless refugees toiling along the main roads out of Paris and the exposure of true character under pressure – some hoarding their wealth, others risking their lives to give what little they had to help others.
The film dramatises "Dolce", the second of the two parts to be completed out of the five intended for "Suite Française". Unlike Part 1, "Tempête en juin", which follows the fortunes of several very different sets of people fleeing the capital, "Dolce" has a tighter storyline. Lucille has led a quiet life, dominated by her mother-in-law, Madame Angellier (a spiky Kristen Scott-Thomas), as she waits for news from the Front of the husband she was pressured into marrying "for security". When the country town of Bussy is overwhelmed by the arrival of the victorious German occupiers, even Mme Angellier cannot refuse to billet an officer. Inevitably, Lucille is caught in the dilemma of being drawn to an "enemy" she has been instructed to cold shoulder, yet feeling obliged to help a neighbour whose stand against an abusive German has put his life in jeopardy.
Many characters may be stereotypes, but we see how the contrasting reactions of resistance, collaboration and passive acceptance are fed by social divisions: the arrogant local Viscountess, who hates the peasants enough to shop one of them to the Germans, with devastating results; the tenant's daughter driven to abject poverty by the rent-grabbing Madame Angellier, who sleeps with an enemy soldier for the material gain it may bring; the townspeople who seize the opportunity to spit at Lucille when they think she is doing the same thing.
The film-makers seem to have found the original climax of the book too subtle, and so spiced it up with a final chain of events which did do not quite "ring true" yet it is overall a thought-provoking, well-acted and atmospheric film which captures a strong sense of the times.