SLIFF Spotlight: 'Memoir of War'

Thursday, November 1, 2018
A still from 'Memoir of War'.

2017 / France / 127 min. / Dir. by Emmanuel Finkiel / Opened in select cities on Aug. 17, 2018

by:
Joshua Ray

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Marguerite Duras is most familiar to cinephiles as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ breakout narrative feature Hiroshima mon amour (1959), an earth-shattering announcement of new cinematic possibilities that is often lumped in with the beginnings of the French New Wave. However, Hiroshima – with its impressionistic portrait of personal and collective World War II trauma – couldn’t be further removed from the rough-edged, freewheeling movie-movies of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Francois Trauffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), two other key proclamations of French filmic liberation. 

In viewing Memoir of War, Emmanuel Finkiel’s adaptation of Duras’ autobiographical novel Le Douleur (translation: pain), it becomes clear that the nouveau roman-contingent author is owed as much credit for the supreme emotional depth of Hiroshima as is its director. In Finkiel’s film, Duras herself (Mélanie Thierry) is the protagonist and narrator, with the author’s prose serving as her internal dialogue as she navigates both Nazi-occupied and post-liberation France. Duras obsessively searches for her detained Resistance-member husband (Emmanuel Bourdieu, mostly viewed in ghostly glimpses) and attempts to trace his movements through prisoner-of-war and concentration camps, ultimately fighting a battle to retain her own personal agency and mental strength.

Given that it portrays the early life of a French national treasure, one might expect Memoir to be a hagiographic biopic, but both the source novel and the script are too intelligent for such banality. There’s also Thierry, an actor given the monumental challenge of portraying a well-known figure. She does so not with gilded reverence for Duras, but with the quiet restraint and power necessary for this specific story – only allowing for emotional fireworks in one particularly appropriate and heartbreaking moment near the end of the film. 

The bifurcated structure mirrors Duras’ shattered internal self, but it also presents a unique rhetorical shift for a film. The first half is a suspense narrative as the writer psychologically (and nearly sexually) manipulates an SS officer (Benoît Magimel) into divulging information about her imprisoned husband, while also obscuring her own involvement with the Resistance. When that con proves futile just as France’s liberation begins, the film shifts wholly into a patient grief narrative, as Duras is left to wait for her husband's return. Her learned helplessness mutates into supreme guilt. She can’t settle what she feels is a selfish need for one man’s survival with the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, a dilemma compounded by both the celebration of returning prisoners and the erasure of nameless victims by the Gaullists. 

While this film is much more of a literal depiction of survivor’s guilt than Resnais’ Hiroshima, Finkiel’s feature still occasionally dips into surreality, mirroring its protagnosist’s dissociation, anguish, and guilt. The director manifests ghosts haunting Duras just outside of the frame – or just out of focus within it – and the heroine often finds herself staring at her future or past self in an attempt to reconcile her actions with her feelings. Finkiel also keeps his camera remarkably close to his protagonist, disorienting his audience with blocking and manifesting Duras’ dislocation through shallow focus and choice camera setups; often, she is partly obscured in windows and door frames. The film’s final shot is a superb encapsulation of this working mode when the camera shifts and loses focus to resemble a pointistic painting, visualizing the murkiness of death in its many forms: physical, emotional, and spiritual.

Memoir of War screens Friday, Nov. 2 at 12:00 p.m. and Sunday, Nov 4 at 12:00 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.