Memoir of War (La Douleur) movie review: woman on the homefront

Memoir of War yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Marguerite Duras’s semifictionalized memoir of psychological survival and emotional endurance in Paris during the Nazi occupation makes an uneasy, listless transition to the screen.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Marguerite Duras’s semifictionalized memoir of psychological survival and emotional endurance in Paris during the Nazi occupation and the city’s subsequent liberation makes an uneasy, listless transition to the screen with French writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel’s Memoir of War. I have not read the book, so I’m guessing here, but I suspect that Duras is not well served by this film, which is cold and cerebral about treachery, anxiety, and love when it needs to be passionate and engaging.

The subject matter is, you would imagine, certainly explosive enough to fuel plenty of intensity: In 1944, Duras’s (Mélanie Thierry: A Perfect Day, The Zero Theorem) husband is arrested: a fellow writer, Robert Antelme (Emmanuel Bourdieu, though glimpsed only briefly) is active in the Resistance; in the aftermath, Duras, also with the Resistance, forms an edgy acquaintance with a collaborator Gestapo officer (Benoît Magimel) in order to ascertain her husband’s whereabouts and condition, and, perhaps, to gather information that will be useful to the Resistance. At the same time, she’s having an affair with another member of the Resistance, Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay: Personal Shopper). The film jumps between this tension and that of 1945, when POWs and those liberated from the German camps begin to stream back into Paris, and Duras waits with equal measures of hope and dread for Robert’s return… or for his failure to do so.

Nazi collaborators... I hate these guys.
Nazi collaborators… I hate these guys.

And yet not much actually happens here. This is a story about waiting, not doing, and Finkiel presents Duras’s wallowing with a dreamlike quality that toys with being nightmarish without ever quite getting there. Thierry frets beautifully, but Finkiel can’t seem to find much to say with it: Duras wanders city streets in a distressed daze, for instance, after her husband’s arrest, and Finkiel crafts this as a literal unfocused blur with her narration about her disquiet and worry — which I presume is taken straight from her prose — standing in for any actual feeling. (It doesn’t help that for English-speaking audiences, the poetry of her writing is lost, and we’re left trying to keep up with translated subtitles.)

The moments when Memoir of War becomes absorbing — as with one sequence in which Duras commiserates with a neighbor (Shulamit Adar) who is also awaiting the return of a loved one from the camps — are the ones that remind us how absent are stories about women in wartime. War happens on the homefront, too, and cinema has for too long acted like these stories don’t matter and aren’t worth telling. I just wish this one was better told, because there is immense human drama in enduring physical and psychological deprivation, separation from loved ones, and, particular to Duras’s story, the relentless stress of enemy occupation and the dangerous work of hidden resistance. Or, ahem, there should be immense human drama in all of this. It’s a shame there isn’t here.

Memoir of War is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for August 31st. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.

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