The Movie Waffler New Release Review - MEMOIR OF WAR | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - MEMOIR OF WAR

memoir of war review
Adaptation of Marguerite Duras's wartime memoirs.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Emmanuel Finkiel

Starring: Mélanie Thierry, Benoît Magimel, Benjamin Biolay, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet

memoir of war poster

During World War II, France's multi-hyphenate renaissance woman Marguerite Duras (perhaps best known to cinephiles as the writer of Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour) kept a journal of her experiences in occupied Paris. In the mid-80s, Duras dug out said journals and embellished her autobiographical accounts with fictional details for her 1985 book 'La Douleur'. In the hands of writer/director Emmanuel Finkiel, Duras's book receives a screen translation that is at once overly literal and visually superficial.

memoir of war review

The role of Duras, known here as Marguerite Antelme, is played by Mélanie Thierry, who with her sullen visage and a smouldering fag end constantly between her fingers, almost resembles a parody of French femininity. Marguerite's outward inexpressiveness masks inner turmoil, longing and guilt. Her husband, Robert (Emmanuel Bourdieu), has been arrested for his role in the resistance movement, and with the Allies closing on Paris, Marguerite fears he will be executed before the Nazis evacuate the capital.

The first half of Finkiel's adaptation focusses on the cat and mouse game played between Marguerite and Pierre Rabier (a batrachian Benoît Magimel), a collaborationist police officer who claims to be helping Marguerite out of an affection for her published prose. It soon becomes clear that Rabier has two ulterior motives - his personal attraction to Marguerite and his professional duty to exploit her status within the resistance to weed out her colleagues. Memoir of War is at its most enthralling when it's exploring this dynamic. Initially, Rabier holds all the cards, but as it becomes clear the Nazi jig is up, Marguerite begins to take a cruel but understandable relish in mocking the oncoming end of everything Rabier has allied himself with. In her print memoir, Duras unapologetically confessed to taking part in the physical torture of those who would betray her country, but this psychological cuckolding of Rabier and his unsavoury philosophy is the closest Finkiel gets to portraying the darkness Duras was driven to by the resistance.

memoir of war review

Memoir of War's less engaging second half takes place in the months following the liberation of Paris, as Marguerite struggles to learn the fate of her husband, who was taken by his Nazi captors from the city along with fellow resistance members. Word comes through that Robert may have ended up alongside Jewish prisoners at the notorious Dachau concentration camp. When freed Jews begin to return to Paris, crammed into trucks like underfed cattle rejected from auction, and the true horrors of their treatment is revealed, Marguerite begins to wonder whether she can be truly reunited with Robert if his spirit and body is as broken as those of the dead-eyed former prisoners returning to her city.

The remainder of the film explores notions of guilt as felt by Marguerite. Guilt for engaging in an affair with Robert's friend and fellow resistance fighter Dionys (Benjamin Biolay) and for escaping the horrors inflicted on soldiers and Jews as she lived a relatively privileged life. The latter is a curious and potentially interesting examination of one of the rare instances where being a woman gave you a privileged status, societal misogyny ironically allowing women to avoid the frontlines, but Finkiel relies too heavily on a voiceover that trades visual storytelling for lazily relating passages from Duras's writings. Duras's words tell us how and what she was feeling in this period, but Finkiel and the inexpressive Thierry fail to show us what their protagonist felt. Occasionally, Finkiel adds the visual gimmick of having Thierry appear twice in a single frame, observing herself out of body, but it doesn't do anything to enhance the psychology of the moment.

memoir of war review

Memoir of War is at times inarguably affecting - how could an account of this period fail to be? - but too often we're moved by words rather than images. Duras's description of the physical deterioration of a Jewish teenager would have the most anti-semitic of viewers reaching for the tissues, but it's no achievement of the filmmakers, rather of text and history. The most genuinely affecting moment however comes courtesy of a rare instant of Finkiel and Thierry coming together to move us through direction and performance as the latter's Marguerite completely breaks down when she realises how emotionally gruelling the reunion with Robert she has so longed for will be. As Robert's friends bring their comrade's desiccated body up the stairs to his wife's apartment, Marguerite struggles to prepare herself for his homecoming, failing to find the strong, impenetrable mask she has worn throughout the film to this point. Had Finkiel's film dropped its own stoic mask earlier and embraced such emotion from the off, Memoir of War may well have been a more rewarding experience than the intermittently impactful film we're presented with here.

Memoir of War is in UK/ROI cinemas May 24th.

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