Saccharine Sweet Francaise

Red lipstick and suspenders upstage Nazi atrocities again, as the National Front come second in French election.

Now I like a floral frock and a well-pressed Nazi uniform (on screen, you understand) as much as the next gal, but I do find the nostalgic framing of WWII in the movies a little troubling – and ‘Suite Francaise’ is no exception. The hand of the BBC is everywhere visible in the production, from the costumes to the doughty cast of characters who could have come straight from the set of ‘Poldark’ or ‘Lark Rise to Candleford.

Michelle Williams plays ‘the beautiful Lucille’ (as described by the BBC) and Matthius Schoenaerts gives Ralph Fiennes a run for his money as the brooding, handsome and ‘refined’ (BBC again) Nazi soldier, his refinement on show for all to see via his wistful tinkling on Michelle’s, erm, piano.

The two, entirely predictably, fancy the pants off each other (or should that be cami-knickers) and various complications ensue, what with him being a Nazi and everything. But the moral of the story is that lurv and that old-British-chestnut ‘common decency’ prevail, wresting some kind of happy ending from the film and – by extension – the Nazi occupation of France.

The film is based on a recently discovered manuscript. Irène Némirovsky, an ultra-nationalist Russian Jew exiled in France, wrote the stories while living under German occupation. In that context ‘Suite Francaise’ can perhaps be understood as an attempt to humanise an implacable enemy, the natural desire to have love triumph – at least in the imagination. The real story is remarkable and could have made an interesting film, since Irene Nemirovsky’s end was not happy and neither love nor common decency prevailed: like 6 million other European Jews she was ultimately betrayed by the people she lived amongst and sent to Auschwitz, where she died.

The unending nostalgia for WWII, envisaged as a time of moral simplicities and endless heroism, airbrushes the reality: that millions of ‘ordinary’ people in every nation in Europe collaborated with the Germans and shared their distrust and hatred of the Jews, while the wealthy admired the Nazis as a bastion against the political left.

Yesterday, France’s far right National Front came second in municipal elections with 25% of the vote. When poverty comes through the door, the saying goes, love flies out the window. Ignorant hatred of Muslims, xenophobia and anti-semitism are stalking the streets of our continent once again. We should resist these cosy fables, that reduce WWII to a lush setting for romance, and face up to the less palatable realities of our shared past – which no amount of lipstick can gloss over.

For a grittier, more complex, troubling and interesting exploration of similar themes see Louis Malle’s 1974 film ‘Lacombe Lucien.’

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