Memoir of War

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Emmanuel Finkiel

Starring

Benjamin Biolay Benoît Magimel Mélanie Thierry

Anticipation.

Marguerite Duras, wartime intrigue, people looking sad… seems heavy.

Enjoyment.

Buoyed by an astonishing central turn by Mélanie Thierry.

In Retrospect.

Maybe a little conventional to warrant a second helping.

A perfectly calibrated central performance by Mélanie Thierry powers this dour wartime literary drama.

When an actor signs on to play a person who exists or has existed, there’s always the question of how far (or how well) the performance captures the essence of the subject. The only way we are able to judge is by attempting to deduce whether the actor is leaning on the precarious crutch of learned mannerisms, high-wire voice work or any other strategies which make it look like they’re doing a cheap impression, or whether there’s some deeper personal understanding. Has there been a transference of spirit?

Mélanie Thierry produces something miraculous in the lead of Emmanuel Finkiel’s admirably dour psychological drama, Memoir of War, essaying a lightly fictionalised version of French doyenne of the ‘nouveau roman’, Marguerite Duras, yet never haughtily signalling to the audience that she walking in the shoes of a real person.

She is relaxed and confident, wholly enveloped in the intrigues of the story and, as such, shorn of the need to show her working through gesture or technique. The film is adapted from Duras’ 1985 novel ‘La Douleur’ (“Pain”), and its story mirrors that of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s late masterpiece The Marriage of Maria Braun, in that it tells of an industrious woman left to fend for herself in Nazi occupied Paris while her husband is off fighting for the resistance. Despite the fact that Duras was a close friend of radical formal experimentation in both her literature and filmmaking, Memoir of War betrays the trappings of a prestige costume drama, albeit one that isn’t pandering too intently to a mainstream audience.

While Duras inquires about the wellbeing of her absent husband Robert (Emmanuel Bourdieu), a sideline game of cat and mouse develops between her and collaborationist cop and wannabe manipulator, Pierre Rabier, played with a borrowed time confidence by Benoît Magimel. Much of the first half of the film involves lengthy conversation scenes between the pair, him unafraid to assert his turncoat authority, and her stringing him along in a way which cloaks her emotional vulnerability. An insidious threat of violence hangs in the air, punctured by the fact that he is quietly in thrall of her artistic prominence, and that she is so insouciant about it.

But the action she takes is at the service of making sure she sees her husband again, and the film’s second half focuses more closely on when the pain transforms from irritating to unbearable. It’s strange as you’d think this half, in which Duras is left alone to combat feelings of aching destitution, would be the more inscrutable and punishing section of the film.

Yet so detailed and thoughtful is Thierry’s rendition a woman stoically and methodically pining for her husband while gradually coming to terms with the true horror of the Nazi regime, it’s actually when the film comes into its own. A climactic coda explores the idea of dire worldly experience helping to alter the way we think about those we love, and those we thought we loved.

Published 22 May 2019

Tags: Marguerite Duras Mélanie Thierry

Anticipation.

Marguerite Duras, wartime intrigue, people looking sad… seems heavy.

Enjoyment.

Buoyed by an astonishing central turn by Mélanie Thierry.

In Retrospect.

Maybe a little conventional to warrant a second helping.

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