The Waiting: Emmanuel Finkiel dramatizes Marguerite Duras' 'Memoir of War'

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The Gestapo deported Marguerite Duras’ husband to Dachau for his role in the Resistance. In 1944, Duras began a long wait for his return home. Based on her memoir of this period, both personal and historical, Memoir of War brilliantly defies cinematic convention to convey the emotional space of active expectation. The film stars Mélanie Thierry as Duras, Benoît Magimel as Rabier, the French policeman who has the power to connect Marguerite with her husband, Benjamin Biolay as Duras’ lover, and Shulamit Adar as her neighbor’s mother, Madame Katz. Director Talk recently spoke with director Emmanuel Finkiel.

Director Talk: I understand that the film is an adaptation of La Douleur, not a biopic of Marguerite Duras, but you left out a number of important details about Duras’ life. For instance, she and her husband, Robert Antelme, had a child who died at birth. Antelme agreed to Marguerite’s having a child with Dionys, her lover; in fact, Marguerite, Antelme and Dionys all lived together, and Antelme actually published Dionys’ book. That would have substantially changed the ending of the film.

Emmanuel Finkiel:Yes.

DT: How did you go about choosing which details to include, to create not only the story but also the psychological space?

EF: I did begin working with the text by Marguerite Duras, but I always had in my mind, like seeing in the rearview mirror of a car, a biography of Duras, and specifically the biography written by Laura Adler. Because what the audience is looking at on the screen is a journal, I really had to do research beforehand to find out what the reality was, because film is supposed to film what’s real. When you do this research, you find out that Marguerite Duras was a big liar. She lived with Dionys Mascolo long before her husband was deported. They lived together as a couple under the same roof, and both of them were waiting for the return of Robert Antelme. In her book she treats Dionys almost like a ghost character who’s hovering over, but she never really gives him a full body, she never gives him a reality, and she emphasizes her behavior almost as the ideal wife.

So you have to make some compromises when you want to put this on the screen. On the one hand, you have to respect the text, but on the other hand, you have to insert little clues, little hints into the film to give the viewer the idea that maybe they were having a relationship that took place off-screen.

DT: If I had known all of that information, it would have changed the ending of the film for me. I would have gone away with a different feeling.

EF: In the story she’s giving us less than what actually took place. She wants to portray herself as this ideal wife, but in the book she suddenly throws at us this idea that she’s decided to divorce her husband and move in with Dionys. There’s this kind of brutal force and abruptness about it, and I wanted to keep some of that for the viewer. Some of the viewers as they’re watching the film are going to have that little idea in their head that maybe there was something going on between the two of them, but here I wanted, by doing it the way I did in the film, to keep some of what was in that original text.

I first read the book when I was twenty-five, and when I finished the book, I cried. I didn’t cry because of the waiting, I cried because of some important things in the book that I didn’t put in the screen version. One of the things I felt was very, very important was the fact that in the book she really helps her husband recover. She brings him back to health, but at the end she realizes, as she states—and this is great honesty on her part—that she doesn’t love him anymore. That was the thing that really moved me to tears, because in fact what she’s doing is she’s killing him a second time when she says this. And why return, why go through all this to come back only to be told, “That’s it. It’s over.”

It’s something that’s very strong, because at the moment when she decides that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore, she loses her status as a character, as a person, and she becomes a reflection of the complexity of everything that was going around her in the situation at the time. I think it’s important because we can all identify with something like that. We can all see that she can do what she wants, we know that she reacts with her emotions, which is something we’re capable of doing as well—we react to reality with different emotions—and our emotions can’t be ordered. We don’t know exactly how we would react in that situation, and at the end if you tell somebody you love them but then you want to deliberately lose them from your life, you don’t know how that situation is going to affect you as the viewer.

DT: The cinematography was stellar. Can you talk about your working relationship with your DP, Alexis Kavyrchine?

EF: My way of expressing myself is not necessarily by the story or by the specific image; it’s really the framing of each scene as it’s portrayed on the screen. Alexis is a very strong cinematographer. He comes from a documentary film background, so it gives that kind of resonance to the fictional story. While we were filming, I was right there behind him, right behind his ear. Nothing was planned in advance. As we worked along, I would whisper something in his ear. We would frame it, and things would develop as the film progressed. We were always on the same wavelength, so it was a very direct relationship between the two of us. There are no two shots that resemble each other in the film. It’s almost as if we were Siamese twins, but three instead of two—Siamese triplets—because the third was the camera. The assistant cameraman with his camera was the third in this triad. The changing in the focus [e.g., depth of field] was also very important. It was really the third character in the film.

DT: You lost two grandparents and an uncle in the camps.

EF: And a young uncle. My father’s brother.

DT: You’re a director, but you’re also a person. When you’re shooting a character like Rabier or the scene in the café with all the collaborators, do you get emotionally involved in the material?

EF: My father told me about the occupation. He said that during the occupation he crossed paths with one of the collaborators who was very famous, but not in a good way. He was someone who was called a geulcasse, which is a real rough, brutal kind of face. He was a police inspector, and he would arrest people and take their property. For him it was a business deal—he arrested them and profited by taking their property. When I read Duras’ book and saw the character of Rabier, this story that my father told me came to mind. He’s terrible, but at the same time, much as my father said about the first guy, he didn’t talk gruffly and he wasn’t mean. He spoke very gently, and there was almost a kind of charm about him. In Duras’ description of Rabier, she really talks about him as being this monster, a traitor. But nothing is simple in Duras’ work, and you can see when you read that even though she describes him as a monster and a traitor, there was also almost an erotic attraction that he had for her. So I did some more research into her biography and found that a number of her friends and people who were part of her network in the Resistance had seen both of them going into a hotel together. So here the Rabier I’ve created on the screen is really a combination. I built him of these two characters—the one that I recalled my father telling me about and the character that Duras describes.

DT: I loved the dichotomy between Mrs. Katz and Duras. You have the Jewish woman and the non-Jew, and you have someone who’s desperately waiting for a loved one to come home and someone who’s ambivalent. How did you direct those scenes? I know that you’ve worked with Shulamit Adar, the actress who plays Mrs. Katz, a lot.

EF: Madame Katz is actually my contribution to this story, and it’s part of my own personal story. In this work Marguerite Duras speaks very little about the Jews. What happened to her husband is very interesting. He was arrested because of being in the Resistance. He could have taken the path that was the path of the POW. He could have gone that route and not gone the way the deported Jews went, but instead he chose a different path.

DT: He chose it?

EF: It was a terrible meeting of circumstances. He wasn’t Jewish, but things just happened, so instead of being given that destiny he went the same way that any of the Jews did—he experienced Buchenwald, the death march, Dachau. It was the route that ended in death, and it was the route that specifically the Jews took. These were the people who never returned. In Marguerite Duras’ book, Mrs. Katz is spelled with an s at the end—K-a-t-s instead of K-a-t-z. I restored her z to her, which is probably what it was originally, and she really is a reflection of my own personal history. There are times when the two women are almost totally in sync in terms both of their suffering and also in their waiting. But here Mrs. Katz is representative of the Jews.

DT: You were basically making a film about waiting. What were your biggest worries? Were you worried it was going to be too boring, too sentimental? What did you try to avoid?

EF: I had a lot of concerns. I didn’t want in this film to recreate history, because this is probably the period of history that’s been most recreated on the screen. I didn’t want to redo the same things. I tried to begin with something that was a very intimate story and make it epic. For me, Marguerite Duras is almost a double. She has two sides. One is this very mental, intellectual character who can be on the boring side. The other side of her is this very young, romantic woman who is in love with her husband. I wanted to reflect both parts of her personality, because if I had really told the story simply about waiting, people in the audience would have been waiting and they would have been waiting for something to happen on the screen.

DT: There are many, many different elements to this film. Did you ever have an “A-ha!” moment when you knew that everything came together?

EF: Like Moses.

DT: Exactly.

EF: No, there was not one moment. I think it’s true that good ideas really don’t come through an intellectual process of reflection and constant thinking. They just impose themselves. They come. I think that when they come they don’t necessarily come all at the same moment. I don’t think that I believe in love at first sight, but at the same time it’s something that could develop over the course of several days.

The idea of the double Marguerite came to me when I was working on a very, very intense scene. It’s the scene where she learns from one of the people who had been deported that they had seen her husband, that he was still alive. In the book she recounts how she fell to the ground and had a terrible attack of tears and crying, tears from her eyes, from her nose, from every part of her body. At that moment I put down my pen and thought, “This doesn’t ring true. I don’t believe it.” It’s almost as if she was doing all this to be theatrical, almost cinematic, both for herself and also for Dionys. Think of a situation where someone’s in mourning. They’re crying and they’re just beside themselves with grief, but yet deep inside they’re not really completely feeling what outwardly they’re expressing through this grief. Also, to ask an actress to throw herself on the ground would have been a very difficult scene to pull off. I had to contrast that idea of seeing her on the ground with the scene where you see her by the window. And there you realize that she’s not a dupe. She’s not fooling herself. She knows she’s being theatrical.

DT: Brilliant.

EF: Thank you very much.

Memoir of War opens today in New York City at Film Forum and Lincoln Center’s Francesca Beale Theater and on August 24 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal, with national rollout to follow. The author thanks Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview. This interview is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2018