Neely Swanson

Memoir of War – It’s a long war [MOVIE REVIEW]

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Melanie Thierry in “Memoir of War.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Pictures.

by Neely Swanson

“Memoir of War,” written and directed by Emmanuel Finkiel, based on the semi-autobiographical novel, La Douleur by Marguerite Duras, is a good try at something that was almost impossible from the beginning.

“La Douleur” (Sorrow) is a much more appropriate title for this endeavor as it is an attempt by Finkiel to translate Duras’ rather existential book onto the screen. In brief, and it is the only thing brief about this film, we follow Marguerite, a novelist, through her daily life as her voice-over recites whole passages lifted from the book. Nobly, Finkiel has tried to recreate the interior life of the heroine almost entirely through words, perhaps because there is no real action.  He has forgotten, or perhaps ignored, the fundamental rule of cinema – it is a visual medium.

Marguerite, a member of a Resistance cell in Paris, is mourning the loss of her husband, Robert who has been arrested by the Gestapo. Trying to glean information, she contacts a French collaborator, Rabier, working in Gestapo headquarters. He is attracted to her but is as interested in pulling information from her as she is from him.

Her fellow Resistance members encourage her not to give up hope for Robert’s return. Days and months pass. Germany has lost the war; prisoners are gradually returning as are the few Jewish survivors of the camps; but not Robert. Robert, she discovers, had been transferred to Dachau and no one knows whether he is alive or dead. Her circle of friends implores her not to give up hope.

In essence, the film follows a morose, sad, and pained Marguerite, longing for her husband’s return, as she wanders Paris or confines herself to her room. To heighten the existential aspects of her story, there are times when Finkiel has Marguerite, the character, observe the actions of Marguerite, her alter ego, or maybe it’s the other way around. It almost works, but it takes a while to catch on to what Finkiel is doing.

The primary difficulty, besides the lack of action, is the interminable length of the film, almost all of which is devoted to Marguerite wandering sadly around Paris from April 1944 until well past May 1945. Believe me, you will feel the relentlessness of that extended period and long for either Robert’s death or his return.

The acting is excellent and the burden of the beautiful Mélanie Thierry to convey nuanced, conflicted misery over a period of two plus hours is heavy. Special mention must be given Benoît Magimel as Rabier, who represents the only break from the voice-over sadness of Marguerite. He gives a nuanced portrait of a man whose associations and proclivities have put him in the camp of the villains. He enjoys the limited power he wields, and yes, he wants to pry information from Marguerite but he is also attracted to her both sexually and intellectually, all the while recognizing that in their former worlds, the class divide worked in her favor.

Benjamin Biolay, Dionys, has the unenviable task of having both to support Marguerite in her hopes for Robert’s return and the unspoken but felt sexual tension between the two of them. His words say one thing, his eyes, something else.

Outstanding in a rather inexplicable addition to the story is the arrival of a Jewish woman who stays with Marguerite while she hopefully awaits the return of her handicapped daughter from the camps. Shulamit Adar as Madame Katz is able to convey, in a very short time, the hopes, dreams, optimism and crushing reality and sadness of unrealistic expectations. There is no adequate explanation about her arrival into the life of Marguerite but Adar’s presence is a welcome break from the interminable sadness surrounding her. Too bad Finkiel was unable to telescope Marguerite’s pain as effectively as he did that of Madame Katz.

Opening Friday August 24 at the Laemmle Royal, the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino, and the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena 





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