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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

War Comes Home

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday June 25, 05:56 pm
Suite Française focuses on the civilian side of WWII

 Suite Française

Roxy (opens Friday 3)

3/5

The last couple of years has seen the rebirth of the high-profile World War II movie. From the unflinching Fury to the feel-good caper The Monuments Men, mankind’s bloodiest conflict is being consistently revisited, perhaps as a reflection of our troubled current times.

But compared with the noble, unambiguous WWII movies of the past, this new batch is permeated with moral relativity: The Russian spy allowed to work in the intelligence unit, Allied troops raping and pillaging, the German collaborator with an honourable agenda, and so on.

Suite Française takes full advantage of this new approach. The film stays away from combat scenarios, focusing instead on those left behind (women, children, men deemed not suitable for battle) and their complicated relationship with the occupying forces.

The town of Bussy in France has mostly stayed on the margins of the war effort. While most of the male population is in the trenches, life goes on in the town in a relatively normal fashion. That all comes to an end when the capital falls, and a large number both of Parisians and Nazi occupiers land in the sleepy settlement.

Bussy’s residents are forced to open their doors to the Germans, and dashing officer and accomplished musician Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone) lands in the nicest house in town: The estate of Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas), a hard-as-nails landlord. Von Falk takes a liking to Angellier’s daughter-in-law, Lucile (Michelle Williams), whose husband is currently a prisoner of war.

Von Falk and Lucile fall for each other, but the fundamental sociopolitical differences between them are too strong to be ignored. It doesn’t take long until they’re forced to take sides, and the notion of two nice people caught in an impossible situation just doesn’t cut it.

Suite Française thrives on the mechanics of life under occupation. There are collaborators, the resistance, those willing to see the Nazi soldiers as human beings and those who wouldn’t give an inch to their enemies. Relationships between neighbours become strained, compassion is seen as weakness and every action becomes a business deal of sorts.

Based on an unfinished novel by Irène Némirovsky (the manuscript was published six decades after the end of World War II), Suite Francaise is perfectly adequate for two thirds of its length. But in order to bring the story to an end, a denouement is shoehorned in, and it feels abrupt.

Another problem is Michelle Williams as Lucile. Normally a terrific performer who’s able to disappear in whatever role she’s playing, this time Williams feels more like a blank slate. (That’s not entirely her fault, as the character is underwritten.) This is particularly noticeable next to Ruth Wilson and Margot Robbie, who both have smaller but meatier parts, and the ever-brilliant Kristin Scott Thomas.

Despite its shortcomings, Suite Francaise is both well-crafted and fresh enough to justify a trip to the cinema.

 

When Marnie Was There

Roxy

4.5/5

Following the announcement of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, Studio Ghibli’s production has come to a halt as its future is evaluated. Miyazaki was not only Ghibli’s creator and most successful director — his spirit permeates every single film out of the animation giant, from child-friendly fare like My Neighbor Totoro to the wistful, adult The Wind Rises. It’s no surprise the company feels at a loss.

That means that we won’t be getting our yearly dose of Ghibli goodness for the foreseeable future, perhaps ever. But at least they’re leaving us with a masterpiece: The evocative, emotionally charged When Marnie Was There.

Anna is a teenager with a massive chip on her shoulder. A foster child, the girl has serious abandonment issues and social anxiety, in spite of her caring guardian’s efforts. Anna is also an introvert and has a rich inner life, a combination that makes it extremely hard to get to know her.

An ongoing asthma problem sends Anna to the countryside for the summer. The change of scenery suits her, as she can get lost for hours and doesn’t have to socialize much. Soon enough, the teen comes across a semi-abandoned manor inhabited by a girl her age, Marnie, who has enough joie de vivre for both of them. They become fast friends, but the undefined yet obvious supernatural ilk of their relationship permeates every exchange.

Reminiscent of Henry James’ best work, When Marnie Was There cares more about the characters than explaining what’s going on (a classic Ghibli approach.) Anna is a terrific creation: A girl whose inner turmoil is masked by manners and intrinsic goodness. She’s also a poster child for the introspective teen, often overlooked and shunned, yet perhaps more valuable than the outgoing kind.

Marnie is also an example of the heights hand-drawn animation can reach. While less visually daring than The Wind Rises, the film’s backdrops are stunning and the sunsets tear-inducing.

Brilliant.

 

Aloft

Roxy

2.5/5

Peruvian director Claudia Llosa gained notoriety with The Milk of Sorrow, a magic realism-soaked take on political repression (the two subgenres that Latin America is mostly known for). Her transition to English-laguage films is significant, although not as radical as that of other Academy Award-nominated foreign directors like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Olivier Dahan come to mind.

Aloft is a decent movie, but there’s very little about it that sticks out. If nothing else, Aloft is consistent with the universe around it: The cold, harsh Manitoba mise en scène provides the story with a weight it doesn’t really otherwise have.

The deck seems stacked against Nana (Jennifer Connelly), a widow struggling to raise two kids in northern Manitoba. Nana’s youngest is severely ill, and in desperation Nana agrees to see a healer. The visit takes a turn to the unexpected when it’s discovered that Nana is the one with powers. The development further strains her relationship with her eldest son, who’s in desperate need of some maternal care of his own.

A second storyline runs parallel to Nana’s: Ivan (Cillian Murphy), a falconer with abandonment issues, agrees to participate in a documentary about his craft, unaware that the journalist (Mélanie Laurent) has an agenda that doesn’t involve birds of prey. The plotlines intersect in a predictable fashion: There are scores to be settled and explanations to be offered. As for forgiveness, the wounds may run too deep for that.

For such an emotionally charged film, Aloft is too dour to leave a mark. The blame falls squarely on the script and the direction, as Murphy and Connelly do their darnedest to service their characters. Murphy has seldom felt this human, and Connelly is at her best in stark environments (see Requiem for a Dream and Shelter). But aside from the rather unique idea of using falconry as a plot device, this is a movie that mostly just goes through the motions.

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