“MEMOIR OF WAR”
Love, Loss, Perseverance and War
Marguerite Duras was a key figure on the French twentieth-century literary scene. She was born in French Indochina in 1914, then studied and worked in France and lived in Paris during the Nazi occupation, playing an active role in the Résistance. Decades later, with many published literary works to her name and after working a bit in film, Duras decided to re-examine her experiences of the Second World War and record them for posterity. Her book, published in 1985, is the source of “Memoir of Pain”, the new film from Duras’ compatriot Emmanuel Finkiel.
It is an emotionally complex story of love, loss, and perseverance against the backdrop of war. It’s 1944, Duras is an active Resistance member along with her husband, writer Robert Antelme, and a band of fellow subversives in Nazi-occupied Paris. When Antelme is deported to Dachau by the Gestapo, she becomes friendly with French collaborator Rabier (Benoît Magimel) to gain information at considerable risk to her underground cell. As months wear on without news of her husband, Duras must begin the process of confronting the truth and the unimaginable. Through subtly expressionistic images and voiceover passages of Duras’ writing, director Finkiel evokes the inner world of one of the 20th century’s most revolutionary writers.
We are told that “Words don’t describe what eyes have seen,” an unexpected line to hear in a literary adaptation that remains close to its source text throughout. (This does not mean that the camera doesn’t try some tricky visual articulation of its own.) Several impressionistic passages of reverie emphasize the more straightforward storytelling. This is the account of a young French Resistance writer’s agonizing wait for her husband to return from Nazi capture. The film is an interior evocation of a preemptively grieving state of mind that certainly understands the taxing nature of sorrow.
Marguerite Duras’ memoir is an obsessive and poetic look at the trauma of her Resistance husband’s arrest during the last years of the War. Emmanuel Finkiel has made an elegant, simple, yet stylized film version probably to introduce a younger generation to the book to Duras. There are moments when the haunting, repetitive style comes out like when Marguerite (Mélanie Thierry) reappears twice in the same room, and the camera shifts to the second figure of her. This is perhaps a visual objective correlative for the repeated refrains.
The film is simple, elegant, and harrowing through its two-hour length. It is shot in extreme close-ups, Finkiel’s film is a formally very stylized one. We are constantly aware of its visual gestures, its consistent look.
This are only three characters: Marguerite; Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magimel), the collaborator obsessed with her; and Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), her husband’s best friend. The two men are torments and foils for Marguerite. The process of obsessively pursuing news of her missing husband is saved from pure insanity by Marguerite’s playing off the two men. Rabier’s face sensuous and dull, a façade we can’t see past, and this is perfect because he is not quite real. This is a monodrama, and much of the action is going on purely in Marguerite’s head, and, of course, the film is dominated by her. She is torn by the anguish of not having news of him and her secret affair with her comrade Dionys. She meets a French agent working at the Gestapo, Pierre Rabier, and, ready to do anything to find her husband, puts himself to the test of an ambiguous relationship with this troubled man, only to be able to help him. The end of the war and the return of the camps announce to Marguerite Duras the beginning of an unbearable wait, a slow and silent agony in the midst of the chaos of the Liberation of Paris. The ending is not so happy.
“The War: A Memoir” is a form-blurring work that addressed Duras’s emotionally exhausting World War II experience through the thinnest of fictional filters. Robert Antelme was detained and sent to Dachau concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of France for his involvement in the Resistance. Finkiel has primarily built his film from two of “The War: A Memoir’s” six parts. In the first, set in the final weeks of the German occupation, Marguerite begins a flirtatious relationship with Nazi collaborator Rabier agreeing to a series of covert meetings in exchange for information about her deported husband’s whereabouts. In the second, set immediately after the Liberation of Paris, the increasingly withdrawn Marguerite waits for her efforts to bring forth something. Antelme’s survival seems a remote possibility as scores of the formerly imprisoned return to Paris without him.
Finkiel subtly blurs the timeline between these two stages, underscoring the alienating effects of loneliness and mourning on the young writer, though they’re otherwise distinct in tone and focus. The pre-Liberation story centers on the righteous group dynamic of the Resistance, as Marguerite’s risky association with Rabier is debated, aided and closely monitored by her fellow fighters who are led by smoldering firebrand Dionys who would later be the father Duras’s child. There’s a knowing hint of futility to the film’s genre machinations. When the Occupation ends, the comforting distractions of conspiracy and plot drain away, leaving Marguerite largely alone with her thoughts and feelings as if this purgatorial period of unconfirmed loss that proves challenging Marguerite’s inner torment. The film that is told with a narration of literature. It is slow but effective and will keep you thinking for a very long time.
“Memoir of War” opens in New York on Friday, August 17 and in Los Angeles on Friday, August 24