Suite Francaise

“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”

John F. Kennedy

It’s a Bad Day, Constant Reader. You know the kind of day: you’re feeling tired and headachy and possibly just a little bit passive-aggressive and really what you need to do is curl up in bed with the nicest book on your shelves and/or sing angry songs from the New Albion quartet (“in the fire, BATHE IN THE FIRE”) but you can’t because there’s still stuff to do in the day.

I really, really don’t feel like writing about Suite Francaise today, because, well, frankly, writing a post takes a lot of effort and hard thinking and did I mention I had a headache?

But as Freddie Mercury once said: The show must go on. Which means, alas, that I must stop ranting and start writing something constructive.

For some reason the Second World War keeps leaking into my life at the moment. I mean, I guess I did write a whole dissertation on it, so that’s not surprising. And then I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And The Little Stranger. And then, more or less by accident, I went to see Suite Francaise, because a couple of friends were going to the cinema and the only other things on were Insurgent (haven’t seen the first film), The Second Best Marigold Hotel (ditto) or Still Alice (depressing). Not that Suite Francaise sounded a barrel of laughs: set in France during the Nazi Occupation, a French girl falls in love with the German soldier billeted in her house. Yes, I rolled my eyes too.

But that description does little justice to the tangles and tribulations of Suite Francaise. Because it’s only partly a love story; in fact, I’d be inclined to think of it sort of a meta-love story, in that it draws attention to the extraordinary solipsism and magical thinking of many love stories of its type. While Lucille, Our Heroine, is busy lighting candles and coming up with ways of getting her mother-in-law out of the house, poorer citizens are watching their livelihoods, their families, being destroyed by occupation; watching freedoms being eroded by the very officers who seem so decent, so romantic. It reveals the rose-tinted, “love conquers all”, “well after all we’re all human” tropes of this kind of story as trite maxims that obscure the real complexities of occupation: the knife-edge between cooperation and resistance, welcome and hostility, equilibrium and disaster, love and hate, that the occupied territory walks.

The film’s also rather good at bringing home the horror of invasion: of bombs in wheatfields and lines of refugees on country roads; of occupying officers rioting in ancient stately homes; of the Nazi flag flying over an execution in the sunny square of a rural French town. Of having to live with the enemy, the invader in your own home, hating him but having to keep his commands. Its structure, a sort of repeating parabola in which Lucille is first repulsed by Bruno, her officer (and the town repulsed by its occupiers), then drawn to him (the townspeople begin to curry favour with the officers and soldiers), then repulsed again (as some atrocity is imposed upon the town by Nazi martial law), gives a sort of vertigo to the proceedings: can we trust the Germans? Are they really “nice” and understanding and not here to hurt us? Or are they vicious oppressors with no thought for the well-being of the occupied populace? Both are true; and neither, and that contradiction is where the heart of Suite Francaise lies.

It’s not by any means a perfect film: many of its narrative threads remain untied, and as a unity it frequently feels muddled, confused, unsure. But perhaps these are necessary things for a film like this; certainly I can’t think of any better ending that would stay true to what I think the film is trying to say. I don’t think I’d see it again in a hurry, and I didn’t feel any particular emotional resonance with it. But I enjoyed it, on the whole. I enjoyed that it didn’t take the easy way out at any point. I enjoyed its complexity and its courage. Don’t judge Suite Francaise by its synopsis. It’s better than that.

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