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film review

Matthias Schoenaerts, left, as German officer Lieutenant Bruno von Falk and Michelle Williams as Lucille in the adaptation of Irene Nemirovsky’s novel, which charts the love affair between a young French woman and a German officer assigned to watch her in 1940s Nazi-occupied France.Bruno Calvo

Up to a point, the fierce Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas) has been doing the poor tenant peasant class of Bussy, France, a favour by preparing them for the Nazi invasion. On the sunny summer morning in 1940 that the Luftwaffe begins strafing the lines of refugees fleeing Paris for the countryside, the grim landowner's widow has been dragging her suffering daughter-in-law Lucile (Michelle Williams) on a round of farmhouses for a lesson or two on the non-negotiable extraction of rent. When the bombs drop and the clocks are set to German time, some of the town's poorest citizens are already well versed in being bullied.

But this invasion turns out to be every bit as domestic as it is territorial. When the well-mannered German officer Lieutenant Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts) is billeted in the horrified Madame Angellier's country estate, tickling the keys of the parlour piano and vibrating the heartstrings of the lonely young Lucile (whose husband is a prisoner of war), the question of whether class presumption or German occupation is Bussy's bigger bête noire becomes Suite Française's defining preoccupation. At the very least, the arrival of Hitler's army has stirred a beast from the bushes that was already there. Within weeks, the citizenry is using the Nazi presence as a way of settling old scores, venting petty resentments and – most consistently and ruthlessly – thrusting women into the position of choosing between survival and self-respect.

Based on the posthumously published, unfinished novel by Irène Némirovsky, a Russia-born French Jew who died in Auschwitz despite converting to Catholicism and supporting the Vichy collaborationist regime, director and co-writer Saul Dibb's tastefully old-fashioned adaptation peels away much of the book's intricately panoramic account of life in the first months of occupation. Instead, it's a story of forbidden love between overly sensitive but passive non-conformists – the forgotten PoW's bride Lucile and the conscience-prone brooder von Falk. The result is a sturdy enough but ultimately overpolite entry into the classic wartime women's melodrama, in which war's impact on the lonely heart is nearly as devastating as the havoc wreaked on limb and landscape.

If the focus on the forbidden attraction between the Nazi officer and the married Frenchwoman represents a highly selective but dramatically sensible reduction of Némirovsky's almost journalistically crowded account of French provincial life to a kind of melodramatic ritual – the movie is set in the 1940s, made in the 2010s, but feels like the Hollywood 1950s – this isn't to say it isn't nuanced or observant in its own way.

The focus on the tension between the two women, bound miserably together by shared attachment to a missing soldier neither of them really knows, provides precisely the kind of perspective on issues of class, sexuality and emotional complexity that the customarily male-driven war movie has so little time or interest in. In a testosterone-prone combat movie such as last year's Fury, it is precisely the sacrifice of personal feelings to a greater duty that tends to define what makes a soldier good. Women are either a distraction from the primary directive of victory or a reminder of what we're fighting for. When gender perspective is swung the other way, survival is as much about living with hard choices as dying with honour.

In previous decades, filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica, Kenji Mizoguchi, William Wyler, Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder took a woman's experience of war as a means of reminding us that there's always more to it than who wins, that there's always someone left behind when the machines roll on. The road to victory is plowed directly through homes, relationships, hearts and families. While Suite Française rarely attains the sustained sense of pure, shattered domestic violation some of the greatest women's war pictures have, it does understand something that most of them share in common: Few images bring the horror of war home quite as dramatically as a soldier standing in your kitchen.