Stories about prolonged separations tend to insist that hope keeps people alive, but waiting can be its own kind of death, and absence can become an obsession unto itself. Emmanuel Finkiel’s “Memoir of War” — an austere, solitary, vividly internalized adaptation of the autobiographical novel that Marguerite Duras wrote about her experience of World War II — scratches at that grim truth with spellbinding focus and determination.
Duras, an author and filmmaker best known for “The Lover” and “Hiroshima, mon amour,” spent her first eternity in the purgatory of Nazi-occupied Paris, stuck in place and scrambling around the city for any news about where the gestapo might have taken her husband, Robert Antelme. Forty years after the fact, and still trying to make sense of the fugue state she fell into during that time, Duras cracked open her old diaries and collected them into a half-remembered memoir that muddled fact and fiction in order to capture the profound strangeness of a paused existence. “When the past is recaptured by the imagination,” she wrote, “breath is put back into life.”
In its patient and aggressively unsentimental way, this biopic watches as Duras’ grief starts to sustain itself and grows lungs of its own — in the span of the movie’s two gray hours, her grief becomes so complete that it no longer needs Antelme to breathe it full of air. Anchored by a brilliant Mélanie Thierry, whose stone-eyed lead performance is at the center of almost every frame, Finkiel’s film never betrays the distance that Duras inserted between herself and her own experiences, or that she wrote from the perspective of a vessel as much as she did a subject. “Memoir of War” never forgets that Duras published her book with the title “La Douleur,” or “The Pain.”
“Memoir of War” opens with a temporally dislocated feeling that it’s able to sustain for the duration. Laced with reflective voiceover narration that Thierry reads from Duras’ text, the film cements a convincing recreation of mid-’40s Paris with a pervasive sense of detachment. Every visceral detail — every vibrant and believable wide shot of the city, which subtle computer effects have stretched out for miles on end — only deepens the queasy void that grows between the facts of Duras’ situation and the feelings that she comes to develop about it.
While the movie eventually (and deliberately) loses itself to that limbo, its first half threatens to become some kind of erotic thriller about the twisted sexual dynamics between a Nazi honcho and the wife of a Resistance member he personally delivered to Dachau. Fans of Christian Petzold’s recent “Phoenix” will feel right at home as Duras begins her agonized flirtation with a sniveling German collaborator named Rabier (Benoit Magimel), whose boyish fascination with writers renders him blind to Duras’ obvious loathing. “Men like women who write,” Duras would say in one of her later works. “A writer is a foreign country.” As the war starts to wind down and the Nazi collaborators get their comeuppance, Rabier is nothing if not a guy who desperately needs to get out of France.
Finkiel tries to keep this toxic romance from becoming too suspenseful, well aware that it will be hard to refocus his movie as a meditation on pain if viewers get too wrapped up in a pulpy genre exercise. He punctuates the suspense with long, introspective passages of Duras watching the city whirr around her, and peddling her bike through the empty streets. There’s ample opportunity for excitement — not only does Duras attend Resistance meetings, but she enjoys some very long hugs with the handsome Dionys (Benjamin Biolay) on her way out the door — but “Memoir of War” is more interested in her “phenomenal chaos of thought and feeling.”
This isn’t a movie about set-up and payoff, it’s a movie about the torment of being stuck in your head, and the insoluble loneliness of walking through a crowd of people who are oblivious to your private suffering. Because once Paris is liberated and rumors of Hitler’s suicide begin to spread, Duras starts to feel as though she’s the only one who’s still living through a war. Hundreds of thousands of imprisoned men flood back into Paris — even some Jews are returned to the city, carted into town in their concentration camp stripes — but Duras’ husband is nowhere to be found. The world breaks free, but not for her.
And so, after a knotty and spectacular kiss-off to the Nazi who’s still crushing on her, Duras shrinks into her apartment and starts a new phase of waiting. “I feel a slight pang that I failed to die a living death,” she says, recognizing that her husband is no longer relevant to her grief. From there, “Memoir of War” is a confined and suffocating experience, the delicate splendor of Finkiel’s compositions keeping us at a historical remove from Duras’ emotions. Even the sequence where Duras gets ill (and becomes friends with an older woman in extreme denial) is shot with a still and ruminative beauty, like the movie is being remembered, not re-created.
Save for a handful of necessary moments, Duras is thinking about her feelings instead of feeling about her thoughts.
Some actors might find that limiting, but Thierry leans into it. She’s tired but desperate, confident but forever uncertain how to reconcile how Duras could miss her husband with such fervor, and yet also not think of him at all. Duras says that “nothing is known about the human species,” and it often seems as though Finkiel might have read that note to Thierry as a piece of direction. “Memoir of War” sometimes goes too far to mute any sense of emotional clarity, so afraid to “solve” Duras’ heart that it occasionally just starves it for blood, but there’s always something new to see inside the sunken lines of Thierry’s face. It’s her performance that puts “breath back into life,” even after Duras has died a few times over.
“Memoir of War” opens in theaters on Friday, August 17.