War is hell. It’s also tedious, especially for those on the home front who spend anxious hours waiting for news, for letters, for loved ones to return home. Memoir of War recounts the pain famed French writer Marguerite Duras endured waiting for her husband to return from a Nazi concentration camp.
Memoir of War is based on Duras’ fact-based novella La douleur (1987), which looks back at the end of World War II, as she waited for the return of her husband, Robert Antelme, who was arrested for his work in the Resistance. An essential work in the literature of the war, La douler poses special challenges to any filmmaker trying to be true its poetic, emotional, interior musings. French director Emmanuel Finkiel was more than up to the challenge of capturing her pain—the translation of the book’s title—on film using her own words as his screenplay.
Mélanie Thierry plays Marguerite as a tightly wound spring on the verge of snapping. She spends her days gathering information on returning soldiers and prisoners of war at Paris’ Orsay train station to publish in a newspaper she has started for people like her—friends and relatives of the missing. Her thoughts are laser-focused on finding Robert (Emmanuel Bourdieu), which is how she meets Gestapo functionary Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magimel). Rabier says he can help Robert and parcels out hope and tidbits of information to the desperate Marguerite at daily meetings he arranges at locations around Paris.
These meetings tether Marguerite to reality, a place from which we see her drift in her voiceover musings on Robert’s fate and her own anguish and guilt. Finkiel concentrates on faces, particularly on Thierry’s, often blurring other images in the frame, to admit the viewer into her subjective experience and private thoughts. The duality of her feelings—helpless pain and fierce determination—come into focus in scenes where she watches herself move through her apartment, a writer looking at a subject with almost clinical interest.
Although the film contains no sex or nudity, Finkiel imbues it with a wonderful sensuality. Marguerite is forever pulling on a cigarette, creating burning glows and luxurious smoke plumes. We watch her dress, and Finkiel moves over her shoulder to let us spy on her slipping a nylon stocking over her leg. Rough stone walls, smooth glances from Marguerite’s lover, Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), blurred images that turn figures into diaphanous shadows all create an atmosphere of dreamy tangibility that closely mirrors the atmosphere of Duras’ writing.
And when, as it must, mention is made of the Jews, Finkiel introduces the character of Madame Katz, played with extraordinary pathos by Shulamit Adar. Some of those waiting in this film will be reunited with their loved ones. We know all too well that Madame Katz will never see her crippled daughter again, and the moment of her realization stabs us like an ice pick. Adar’s sweet, open performance rounds out a story of random fate, human frailty, deception, and desire—the chaotic transition from the fear and desperate purpose of wartime resistance to the enforced myth of national unity ushered in by a Gaullist peace.
Mélanie Thierry, who must do the seemingly impossible—dramatize the act of waiting—gives what to my mind is the best performance I’ve seen this or many another year. Her acting is layered, ambiguous, and yet somehow accessible. Her control is amazing, and yet she knows when to let loose her anguish, a frightening relief to her and to us. Magimel and Biolay are excellent as well, both attractive foils for her shifting emotions.
Peace eventually comes, but the atmosphere of death that permeates Memoir of War will forever taint the lives Marguerite Duras wrote about. Memoir of War distinguishes itself as an essential part of the World War II film canon.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Memoir of War is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for August 24, 2018.