SAUL Dibb’s film set in occupied France tries to complete the novel left behind by Auschwitz victim Irène Némirovsky
AS THE credits roll at the end of Suite Française, the eagerly awaited cinematic adaption of the bestselling novel by Irène Némirovsky, the screen is filled with pages of tiny handwriting in watery blue ink. The document is the original manuscript of the novel which was preserved by Némirovsky’s daughter, Denise Epstein, who was just 12 when her mother, and soon after her father, were murdered by the Nazis in 1942. She kept the pages, tucked into a leather-bound notebook as she and her younger sister fled, evading capture until the end of the war. It wasn’t until 60 years later that she read her mother’s writing, discovering that the notebook wasn’t a diary, as she had thought, but an incomplete novel.
“Denise’s son told me that those marks were made as his mother cried reading her mother’s writing,” says director Saul Dibb, who adapted the novel for the screen with co-writer Matt Charman. “You would.”
The story of the notebook is as tragic and poignant as that which it tells. Némirovsky was already a celebrated novelist when she started what was to be a book in five parts, her masterpiece, focusing on the impact of the occupation of France by German forces. She completed the first two sections, Storm In June and Dolce, which were published as Suite Française in 2004, but was unable to do anything more than make notes on the other sections before she was sent to Auschwitz, where she died from typhus at the age of 39.
For Dibb, the challenge was to find a way to make a complete film from an incomplete novel. He did so by focusing on the story of Lucile Angellier (Michelle Williams) as she waits for news of her husband, who is a prisoner of war. Living with her redoubtable mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas in scene-stealing form), Lucile is grappling with her sense of being trapped in her own life as well as by the conflict unfolding around her. Tensions are heightened as refugees start to arrive in their sleepy town from Paris, followed by a regiment of German soldiers who are billeted in the villagers’ homes, including a German officer (Matthias Schoenaerts) who lives with the Angelliers.
Although Epstein died just before production began on the film, she did read the drafts of the scripts. “It was amazing and daunting to go to the publishing house with her and the publisher who first read the manuscript,” says Dibb. “She was very tough, straight, funny and warm. The emotion for her, what it meant, was always so close to the surface. She wanted the journey to continue. She understood the process as one of her mother coming back to life. What she felt very strongly about was that the film should keep the spirit of the book and if we were going to focus on a town, we would also still include the beginning and end of the book, how badly people behaved and how desperate they were.”
Films set during the Second World War have been enjoying something of a moment in the past two years. The Book Thief, The Railway Man, Fury, The Imitation Game – there is seemingly no end to what that period offers as a backdrop for human drama. What interested Dibb about Némirovsky’s novel was that it was the story of France’s occupation from the perspective not of soldiers but of civilians, particularly the women left behind while the men were off fighting.
“It’s a film about women,” he says. “The one thing that really pisses me off is the term ‘women’s film’. Or even period film. To me it’s a way to denigrate women’s experience. War films are always about men and it’s a given. Women, or even civilians, just don’t feature in that. But that was the difference in the Second World War when you compare it with the First – many more civilians died than soldiers.”
It’s clear that Dibb loves Némirovsky’s book; he quotes it several times as we speak. He responds to what he calls its “unvarnished” view of what was going on at the time of the occupation. It’s no surprise that this quality would appeal to a director who learned his craft making documentaries, before moving on to Bullet Boy, set amid the gangs of south London and The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. It’s evident from his concern about getting even the smallest details right – having the German soldiers’ hair cut with hand clippers rather than electric ones – to shooting on location, in this instance in Belgium and France. “I don’t like shooting on sets – they feel fake,” he says. “I think it helps the actors to be somewhere real. In the town in France we shot in, there were some women in their 90s who remembered the tanks rolling in for real. It was like it was happening again.”
The house in which the Angelliers live is almost a character in itself, filled with the details of life that tell you as much about its occupants as anything they ever say.
“We had three-and-a-half weeks in that house in the hottest August that Belgium had ever known,” says Dibb. “But that creates its own weird, uncomfortable, claustrophobic atmosphere which you hope is going to feed into the atmosphere of the scenes.”
Dibb also eschews rehearsal so as to catch what he calls “precious stuff” on film. “If it’s written well and cast well I’m not looking for huge amounts of rehearsal. It’s more important to talk about the characters and understand where they’re going so that you capture the precious stuff while you’re shooting rather than it happening in rehearsal and then clinically harvesting it while you’re filming. That’s not what I feel comfortable with. You have to try and find actors who can also work that way.”
Dibb has the highest praise for his cast, particularly the restraint of the central performances from Scott Thomas, Schoenaerts and especially Williams. “It’s the story about a mouse who roars,” he says. “Some people could do the mouse, some could do the roar, but to be able to do all of that and be able to read into the complexity of her feelings while being oppressed is a very hard thing to do. It’s a properly challenging role in its complexity, it’s not a barnstorming role but to me this is a much greater achievement.”
Denunciations, collaborations… Némirovsky didn’t shy away from the complexity of what happened. For Dibb, the challenge was to tackle his subject matter with the same restraint shown by his actors. In some ways, he is following Némirovsky in trying to create a nuanced portrayal of both conflict and characters.
“The word Nazi is notable for its absence in the novel,” he says. “Who knows why that is? It could be because she was frightened of that manuscript being found. But certainly she was seeking to represent people, not the machine. I don’t know if I’d say that was hard to navigate, but it certainly felt like the representation we should be working towards. What I wanted was something truthful, not mawkish. It wasn’t about ratcheting up some kind of fake emotion. These things happened, there were glimmers of heroism in a whole sea of selfishness.”
• Suite Française is on general release from Friday