Memoir of War

 

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Wartime Paris seen through the eyes of the writer Marguerite Duras.

 

Memoir of War

Mélanie Thierry

 

Emmanuel Finkiel’s Memoir of War counts as a tribute to Marguerite Duras who died in 1996. Since Finkiel’s earlier features were not released here, I cannot say to what extent the style adopted in this film reflects his work generally, but it is entirely apt for an adaptation of a book by Duras. In this case, the book is La Douleur which was published in 1985 and incorporated a semi-autobiographical portrayal of life in Paris during the last phase of the Second World War. Duras, notable as novelist and playwright, also had a considerable career in cinema herself writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and subsequently embarking on a series of avant-garde features which she both wrote and directed, among them India Song (1975) and Le Camion (1977).

 

In this context, it is not surprising that Memoir of War tells its story in a stylised way. Mélanie Thierry plays the 30-year-old Duras anxiously awaiting new of her husband, Robert Anthelme (Emmanuel Bourdieu), whose work for the Resistance has resulted in his arrest by the Gestapo and will subsequently lead to his deportation. Seeking information about him, she takes advantage of the interest shown in her by the book-loving Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magimel), a collaborator working for the Germans who can give news and claims to have influence. Pretending to be unaware of the group to which Robert had belonged but in reality a member of it herself along with Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), Marguerite keeps up contact with the enigmatic Rabier encouraged to do so by the cell who regard this as a useful connection.

 

This situation which came about just before the liberation of Paris is studied in the first half of the film. Thierry wonderfully conveys the strain of living in these times (her facial expressions tell so much) and Magimel is splendidly unknowable as Rabier whose motives are always open to question. Such material could have been told conventionally, but two aspects in particular confirm that Finkiel has other ideas: one is the regular use of voice-overs by Marguerite, sometimes inserted into a scene between dialogue and possibly representing a later gloss on her thoughts at that time; the other is a visual concentration on Marguerite herself expressed by adopting something akin to the style used by László Nemes in Son of Saul (2015) and Sunset (2018) in that it involves the frequent incorporation of out-of-focus shots of the other figures. This also extends to further moments of stylisation (an early scene set in 1945 in which Robert returns proves to be imaginary and once or twice a single shot incorporates a double vision with Thierry being seen twice over).

 

There are, I think, times when the style adopted draws attention to itself rather than successfully expressing the uncertainties of Marguerite’s position. This is less relevant in the film’s second half, although it is very much present again in the distorted images which come at the close. This half is set after the war and expresses well the tensions of those waiting to see if loved ones have survived. There is, for example a moving performance from Shulamit Adar as a Jewish mother hoping to be reunited with her daughter. However, the wider picture of the times tends to lessen the impact of Marguerite’s own situation which might have been more potent had her relationship with Dionys Mascolo been more full explored. But, if Memoir of War raises questions (Is the second half less telling than the first? Will the avant-garde touches worry some viewers?), there is no doubt that Finkiel has created a film that is highly distinctive and one imagines that had she lived to see it Duras would have approved.

 

Original title: La Douleur.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Mélanie Thierry, Benoît Magimel, Benjamin Biolay, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Emmanuel Bourdieu, Anne-Lise Helmburger, Patrick Lizana, Shulamit Adar.

 

Dir Emmanuel Finkiel, Pro Yaël Fogiel, Laetitia Gonzalez and Etienne Mallet, Screenplay Emmanuel Finkiel, based on the novel La Douleur by Marguerite Duras, Ph Alexis Kavyrchine, Pro Des Pascal Le Guellec, Ed Sylvie Lager, Costumes Anaïs Romand.

 

Cinéfrance/Les Films du Poisson/KNM/France 3 Cinéma/Versus Production-New Wave Films.
126 mins. France/Belgium/Switzerland. 2017. Rel: 24 May 2019. Cert. 12A.