Mark Reviews Movies

Memoir of War


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Emmanuel Finkiel

Cast: Mélanie Thierry, Benjamin Biolay, Benoît Magimel, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuest, Shulamit Adar, Anne-Lise Heimburger, Patrick Lizana, Emmanuel Bordieu

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 2:07

Release Date: 8/17/18 (limited); 8/24/18 (wider)

Bookmark and Share     Become a fan on Facebook Become a fan on Facebook     Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter

Review by Mark Dujsik | August 23, 2018

An adaptation of Marguerite Duras' 1985 memoir, Memoir of War fully embraces the contradiction of not knowing. Here, a woman knows that her husband, a member of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation, has been captured, but everything after that is an unknown. Is he being tortured? Where will he go after being detained in Paris? Will he be executed or starve while in some camp in Germany? At any moment while her husband is in captivity, she has to ask herself one question: Is he alive or dead?

The story comes from a series of writings that Duras allegedly kept from 1944 through the end of the war in Europe. It was published decades later under the title La douleur, which translates to "The Pain." The film itself acknowledges that the origins of the text are uncertain, as the narration insists that Duras found these writings some time later but does not recall actually writing them. There's a good case for either option—that the writings are authentically of the period or that they were written later.

The actual origin of the text is also inconsequential. The film viscerally captures that dichotomy of existing without knowledge. The Marguerite of the film, played by Mélanie Thierry, is constantly of two minds about the fate of her husband Robert Antelme (Emmanuel Bourdieu). If he's alive, he may die in a month, a week, or even an hour. If he's dead, she won't know until the war is finished, and even then, it might not be possible to know for certain.

While under Nazi occupation, the whole of France has been kept from knowledge of the true progress of the war. The population barely knows that the Allied Forces are closer to liberating the country than they could imagine, and they have no idea of the atrocities that have been occurring.

At first, Marguerite imagines that Robert could be killed for his participation in the resistance. Once rumors of the truth of what the Nazis have been doing begins to reach Paris, she realizes that the odds of his death have increased exponentially. Even so, as far as she knows, Robert could be alive or dead. It's difficult to tell which is the worse option: knowing that he's alive but likely to die or knowing for certain that he is dead.

Writer/director Emmanuel Finkiel portrays this horrible paradox as a kind of split consciousness. Through words, taken from Duras' personal narrative, and images, the film portrays a woman whose existence has become a paradox: a waiting wife and a grieving widow, a woman who must look for any sliver of hope and one who must accept the inevitable, and, ultimately, a wife who wants her husband to return and a person who believes that the man who could return home would no longer be the man who was her husband.

At one of the many points at which Marguerite finds herself with conflicting reports of Robert's fate, there's a whirling aural montage of her thoughts. Each one of hope gives way to one of despair, which returns to optimism before acknowledging the worst. At multiple points, there exist two forms of Marguerite in the frame: One might be sitting depressed on a couch, while the other looks expectantly out the shuttered windows of her gloomy apartment.

As for the narrative itself, it's split, too. There's the time of the occupation, when Marguerite knows that her husband is being held in a local prison under Nazi control. She brings a package of his clothing to a local office of the Vichy government, where she meets Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magimel), a collaborator who claims to know what will happen to Robert. He's an aspiring writer with plans to open a bookshop after Germany's victory, and he's a fan of Marguerite's writing. He promises to give her information about her husband if she continues to meet with him.

Marguerite, who's also an active member of the resistance, knows better—that Rabier is simply trying to get information about the local resistance network out of her. She, as well as Robert's best friend Dionys (Benjamin Biolay) and the local network's leader Fraçois Morland (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), also believes that she might use his clear attraction to her to the resistance's advantage.

This part of the tale is fascinating in its own right, but it's when the liberating forces arrive that the film truly gets to the core of Marguerite's dilemma. Nothing of much note happens in terms of plot (especially not on the level of the early section's game of cat-and-mouse between Marguerite and Rabier), because it's more about the mood—the crushing sense, with the arrival of each new detail about the horrors of this war, that no news coming to Marguerite will be good.

It's about Marguerite's feeling of isolation amidst the celebration of liberation and the necessary optimism coming from Dionys, who, with the political change in France, has a new role to play in reuniting families. Marguerite herself plays that role, too, offering comfort and housing to those who are waiting. Every death, though, is a reminder of what she fears will come, and every reunion is just a reminder that she has not yet had her own.

This is a haunting film about the agony of uncertainty, in which hope is dwindling and there is no guarantee of truth (One Jewish woman, waiting for her daughter, refuses to believe that the girl is dead, if only because there's no body). It becomes a way of life in Memoir of War, which ends with a certain answer but, wisely, no real resolution to Marguerite's contradictory existence.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

Back to Home

Buy Related Products

In Association with