Film Review: Memoir of War

Semi-autobiographical, murky wartime drama based on renowned French writer/playwright/filmmaker Marguerite Duras’ World War II memoir of an agonizing wait for news of her arrested husband.
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With writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel’s Memoir of War, Music Box Films brings to fans of war sagas and the renowned Marguerite Duras—a very prolific and largely experimental artist—an intense, choppy tale of her immensely draining ordeal during the latter days of the German occupation of Paris. There are few elements of suspense or intrigue in this drama, as it’s largely an inward journey into Duras’ agonized, shaky state of mind over the unknown whereabouts of her Resistance-member husband, Robert Antelme.

Some elements should initially attract a goodly number of art-house fans. But a number of factors—especially a grim, one-note but clearly committed performance from Mélanie Thierry as Duras and the pile-up of murky, scattershot snippets meant to reflect her inner feelings—don’t bode well for delivering the critical approval or positive word-of-mouth that will sustain interest. (That Thierry comes across as one of the more unprepossessing screen heroines is certainly not her fault—the source material has assured that.)

Taking place in 1944 and 1945, the story is set in motion with the post-war discovery by Marguerite of her diaries that, in voiceover, she says she doesn’t remember writing. In one of too many time shifts, we jump to a year earlier, when news of the Allied advance hits radio newscasts. But what causes Marguerite the most grief is the fact that her husband has been taken away by the Nazis, leaving her clueless about his condition or fate.

While Marguerite clearly cares about Robert, she may not love him, as there are hints she was contemplating a divorce a few years back and she has an unusually close relationship with her publisher, Dionys (Benjamin Biolay), with whom she just may be sleeping. (In real life, Duras latter married him.) She has a more enigmatic rapport with Rabier (the ever-watchable French star Benoît Magimel), a well-placed Nazi collaborator and bibliophile who, infatuated with the writer, wants to open his own bookstore in Paris.

Marguerite latches onto Rabier after a futile visit to a Gestapo office for news of her husband and uses him to help get information on Robert. He, in turn, is hoping she’ll provide information on his Resistance network. (In real life, there are reports that Duras had an affair with this “collabo,” as she was actually employed for office work with France’s collaborationist Vichy government.)

Not a lot unfolds externally. Even aesthetically, the occupied Paris here gets cursory treatment. Other films set in the period (The Last Metro or Mr. Klein, just a few among many) have usually delivered a more claustrophobic, ominous sense of the Nazi presence and its dangers. Maybe for Memoir, fewer sunny days in the Paris streets or more extras would have upped the discomfort quotient. Instead, what permeates is Marguerite’s stubborn grey funk.

The French title La Douleur, also the title of the Duras book, means “grief” or “pain,” which hangs heavily over everything here. Beyond the warmth of her friendship with Dionys, there’s little relief from hazy detours into Marguerite’s small circle of friends and acquaintances (most memorably and in the film’s only acknowledgement of the Holocaust, Shulamit Adar as Madame Katz, the visiting mother of Marguerite’s handicapped neighbor, who was also seized by the Nazis). Also hoping to animate the story are the many voiceovers of Marguerite’s tortured mental state and her writings, plus flashbacks and fantasies to mitigate the gloom.

Overall, this mood piece is too impressionistic, elliptical and wobbly about its chronology and details. (Was Duras too a member of the Resistance and, if so, what was her function?) Cynical viewers may rightly or wrongly catch a whiff of Lillian Hellman-like invention for the sake of better storytelling or image-building. Still, the writer of such classics as The Lover and Hiroshima, Mon Amour deserves better than Memoir of War.