Awards Profile: Suite française

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Suite francaise
How many categories does this one picture announce its film a threat to?

Directed by: Saul Dibb
Written by: Matt Charman and Saul Dibb
Cast: Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie

Synopsis: A romance blossoms between a French villager and a German soldier during the early years of the German occupation of France.

Why it might succeed:

The story of how Suite française came into existence is as interesting if not more so than that of the book itself. It’s kind of a long story, but it’s worth going over to understand why this particular WWII novel was notable enough to warrant a film adaptation…

Already a successful author by the end of the twenties, Irène Némirovsky’s life took a turn for the worse during the early stages of World War II. She was of Jewish descent, and her conversion to Catholicism in 1939 didn’t make a bit of difference when her application for French citizenship was denied and she was forced to go into hiding in the small town of Issy-l’Évêque when her family lost everything in the aftermath of the German invasion.

During this time she was hard at work on a planned pentalogy of novels collectively titled Suite française, a portrait of life during the German occupation of France told from the perspective of a large ensemble of characters over the span of many years. The first book, Tempête en juin, concerns itself with the days prior to and immediately after the German invasion of Paris and several characters’ attempts to flee the city and regain some semblance of order in their lives. The second novel, Dolce, depicts life in a small countryside village during the German Occupation and a romance that develops between a married French woman and a German officer.

She would never complete the planned third novel in the series, Captivité. Némirovsky was arrested by the Gestapo in July 1942, forever separated from her family at the Pithiviers internment camp, and eventually taken to Auschwitz where she died of typhus. She was just one of far too many great minds of science, business, and art to have been snuffed out by the atrocities of the Holocaust, and for a time it seemed her magnum opus would never see the light of day. Suite française was handwritten on a single notebook willed to her surviving daughter Denise after the war. Thinking it was a personal diary that she could not bring herself to read, she finally examined its contents fifty years later while arranging to donate her mother’s possessions to a museum, and instead promptly sent the two stories she discovered to a publisher where they were released as a single volume in 2004. And now her work will be further immortalized on film courtesy of Saul Dibb and Matt Charman.

Williams Schoenaerts
Williams and Schoenaerts – Romantic Couple of the Year?

Tempête en juin and Dolce are unique among historical fiction since these were written during the events which formed the backdrop of their stories, and in fact may be one of the first novels ever written about that period in history. Critics have praised the uncommonly personal touch in telling this sprawling narrative (in ways also mirroring Némirovsky’s life before the German Occupation; the domineering Madame Angellier in Dolce is supposedly based on the author’s own strained relationship with her mother) while maintaining an impressive degree of narrative clarity and reflection.

While fans of the novel might bristle at the fact that this adaptation will largely (if not exclusively) focus on Dolce, that’s probably for the best. Tempête en juin, without a central plot or main protagonist, would be difficult to adapt into a film that could be sold successfully even in limited release, and the more straightforward plot of Dolce probably allows for more freedom of interpretation with everyone involved.

Being that it is a WWII drama (albeit a modest one more in keeping with a romantic period piece than a war movie), you can definitely expect it to make a go at nominations in Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design and maybe Original Score. Of those three disciplines, only one is being filled in this film by someone never before recognized by the Academy: DP Eduard Grau, who has been building quite a résumé so far with his close-quarters camerawork in Buried and luscious (if perhaps a little too heavy-handed) photography of A Single Man. Michael Carlin and Michael O’Connor got their first taste of Academy recognition for their work on The Duchess, with the latter man winning for his costumes. As far as I am concerned Alexandre Desplat already deserves consideration this year for his wonderful work on The Grand Budapest Hotel; making another good impression here can only boost his case for finally nabbing that Oscar.

Suite française also boasts a cast headlined by previous nominees Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas. While an emotionally conflicted wife and an imperious matron aren’t exactly a stretch for either of the two actresses, they wouldn’t keep getting cast in those roles if they weren’t so damn good at playing them. The Academy might be especially keen on awarding Thomas ever since her retirement announcement last year. While men don’t fare as well in these types of films in the Oscar race, Matthias Schoenaerts has been a rising international star ever since his breakout performance in Bullhead, and his role as the romantic lead Bruno is as good an opportunity as any for a “Welcome to Hollywood!” nod. Rounding out the supporting cast is Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Lambert Wilson, Tom Schilling, Alexandra Maria Lara and The Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie. Riley probably has the best opportunity for a supporting nomination as the jealous, desperate POW escapee Benoît, though any one of them could shine depending on how Dibbs and Charman decide to tackle the story.

KST Suite
Kristin Scott Thomas – always manages to stand out in any crowd.

Why it might not:

Okay, now I am about to play the cynical pundit: if this movie was being released in the nineties, it would be a far more serious threat for the major categories. But it seems in the past ten years the Academy has not shown as much of an interest in WWII-era epics or swoony historical romantic melodramas. The relatively modest premise of this film is also something that voters may find too light to really feel passionate about, and personally, seeing Kristen Scott Thomas in a movie about German-occupied Paris brings back sour memories.

Whether Suite française will end up an exception or yet another casualty of middlebrow Oscar-bait remains to be seen, but the evidence so far isn’t encouraging. Saul Dibb is perhaps best known for directing The Duchess, which is almost the go-to archetype of typical costume period pieces of our generation. The fact that Hollywood juggernauts Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall dropped out of producing this thing along with Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood just one year after buying the film rights in 2006 also makes me wonder what about this project made them lose interest so quickly.

Second, it’s not very encouraging, in my view, that a film with a title and setting as explicitly French as Suite française has only one principal cast member who is actually, you know, French (though to her credit, Kristen Scott Thomas is fluent in the language and has starred in French productions for a large portion of her career). If by some miracle there isn’t a single mangled accent in this thing I’ll eat one of my shoes.

There’s also one more factor that might taint this movie’s awards chances, though I imagine this will only really come to light in the heat of the season if it has enough momentum, and that’s the controversy surrounding the author herself. You see, Irène Némirovsky was – and still is – accused of being a “self-hating Jew” based on the anti-Semitic elements of her earlier works and some of her acquaintances in publishing being, shall we say, less than tolerant of the Jewish people.1 What in the world does that have to do with this movie, you may ask? Not a damn thing, but then again neither did Woody Allen’s alleged abused of his daughter have anything to do with Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine, but that doesn’t stop unscrupulous awards season campaign strategists from aiming below the belt if that means drawing votes away from a potential competitor.

Oscar Potential:
Lead Actress (Michelle Williams)
Lead Actor (Matthias Schoenaerts)
Supporting Actress (Kristin Scott Thomas)
Supporting Actor (Sam Riley)
Original Score (Alexandre Desplat)
Cinematography (Eduard Grau)
Production Design (Michael Carlin, Lieven Baes and Véronique Melery)
Costume Design (Michael O’Connor)

1 I should note that Irène Némirovsky was hardly the only person of Jewish descent to publicly express anti-Semitic sentiments when the Nazis were taking over Europe, and if someone felt slandering their own heritage would protect their family during that very dangerous time…well, I wouldn’t rush to judgment, is all I’m saying.