But there’s no such pathos in the film, or adequate frisson. As an account of the Occupation, this has more in keeping with the soporific “Charlotte Gray” than, say, “The Army of Shadows.”
British director Saul Dibb and co-writer Matt Charman have fused the novellas, focussing on the slow-burning, forbidden love affair between a Frenchwoman in an occupied town outside Paris, and the German officer billeted in her home.
It opens in 1940, in the fictional Bussy. Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams) is a timid young woman whose husband is a prisoner of war, and in whose absence she lives under the thumb of her domineering mother-in-law. A joyless widow and uncompromising landowner, Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas) forces Lucile to accompany her as she drives around the countryside squeezing every last centime of rent from her struggling tenants.
The arrival in town of a convoy of refugees from Paris, followed by a regiment of Germans, almost represents liberation for the young woman. And when the cultured lieutenant Bruno Von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts) is installed in the house, playing his melancholy compositions on her piano at night, Lucille’s loyalties to husband and country are challenged.
Williams and Schoenaerts convey the nuances of loneliness and illicit love reasonably well, though both seem overly weighed down by their characters’ reserve; this is one of those Williams performances where you just want to pinch her into life. Thus the chief interest of the film lies elsewhere, in the depiction of war not bringing people together in adversity, but actually accentuating the class and social divide.
This manifests in material ways – Madame Angellier evicting a family so that she can install a refugee on double the rent, the town’s mayor (Lambert Wilson) ensuring that he doesn’t have to billet an officer in his mansion, the gentry hoarding supplies while the farmers starve – and in townsfolk betraying each other through gossip to the Nazis. The disgrace of Vichy collaboration has been well-documented; Némirovsky’s airing of a different facet of wartime self-interest lends the film its most powerful moments.
However, overall it’s a sleepy affair, whose punctuations of dramatic action only underline the increasing inertia. Dibb made more of a fist of his previous films “Bullet Boy” and “The Duchess.” Here he fails to find a visual language to enliven his atmosphere of secrets, betrayal and fear; the soundtrack, swirling around the motif of Bruno’s compositions, is stultifying; and while one can accept the film being in English, the casting of English-speaking actors as French characters is unnecessary, distracting and plainly wrong.
Two performers who shine regardless are Ruth Wilson, whose turn as a beleaguered farmer’s wife has infinitely more fire and personality than the leads, and Scott Thomas (as much French as English, of course) whose black-clad harridan leads Bruno to lament, “I’m the one everyone’s supposed to be scared of.”
The movie is opening in the UK and other territories in March and April; The Weinstein Co. will release stateside.