Lost and Found

Emmanuel Finkiel, Memoir of War, 2017, color, sound, 127 minutes.

NOT LONG AFTER HER HUSBAND, the philosopher and Resistance leader Robert Antelme, was ambushed by the Gestapo in Paris in 1944 and deported to Buchenwald, Marguerite Duras logged the ensuing period of uncertainty in a diary that would spend the next four decades yellowing in a cupboard, supposedly forgotten. In 1985—one year after Duras enthralled the world with The Lover, a slim, fathomless autofiction of scarring desires too often misread as one of brave romance—the journal was finally published, alongside other memoir-like vignettes and two fictions, as La Douleur (Pain). The word is euphemistic. Like Duras’s bestselling novella, La Douleur twists itself around a longing that is at times indistinguishable from revulsion, around the treasons of its author’s imagination as it slurs between hope and despair. For its American release, Emmanuel Finkiel’s new film adaptation of Duras’s account trades the plosive thud of its original title for the flatter Memoir of War, though it’s an apt choice considering that his film is obliquely but innately about writing and how it provides a means of survival, or at least something similar.

After all, words are all she has. The movie is set during the waning of the war in Nazi-occupied Paris, where Marguerite (Mélanie Thierry), working within a Resistance cell, struggles alongside her paramour, Dionys (Benjamin Biolay), to secure updates on Robert (Emmanuel Bourdieu). Mostly, she waits. For the phone to ring, for the doorbell to chime, for Robert’s name to appear in the newspaper among lists of the living, and for his presence. To learn more about her husband, Marguerite nurtures a perilous acquaintanceship with Rabier (Benoît Magimel), the corvine French collaborationist who detained him. They rendezvous in daylight, at cafés and promenades. Rabier, an unbookish goon, tells her his dreams of opening an art bookstore one day. He pulls one of Marguerite’s novels from his jacket and reads from it aloud. He orders her plates of ham. She winces through these grim flirtations, fantasizing about her eventual power to have him killed once Paris is liberated. She tries to believe she is in control. But while the film begins with the pat rhythms of a wartime thriller, setting up its heroes and villains, it eventually loosens into an atmospheric psychodrama. “Sadness suits you,” Rabier tells her, and it does—she wears it as she roves a desolate, swastika-bannered Paris; smokes in her kimono; waits for the water to boil. One day, Marguerite agrees to quarter a Madame Katz (Shulamit Adar), who stays in Paris to wait for her disabled daughter’s return from the camps. In one scene, Marguerite comes home and turns on the lights to find that her guest has washed the daughter’s clothes and hung them up to dry all around the living room. They had begun to reek of mothballs.

Attempts to bring Duras’s books to the screen tend to invite extremes, with as many duds—see Jean-Jacques Annaud’s mawkish L’Amant (1992) and Jules Dassin’s 10:30 PM Summer (1966)—as gems, which include Duras’s own India Song (1975) and Détruire, dit-elle (Destroy, She Said, 1965). The takeaway seems to be that it is extremely difficult to adapt Marguerite Duras, unless in fact you are Marguerite Duras. Her writing is brilliantly self-absorbed, and La Douleur is uniquely, bathysmally so despite its ostensible focus on Robert, whose screen time here totals around a minute. Finkiel wisely draws from only the first two chapters, omitting sections that, while cinematic and morally complicating, would have been too clunky to include (her account of directing a torture session with an informer; her testifying against, then for, Rabier). A typical passage from the book’s first, diaristic chapter finds Duras ideating her husband’s death: “His mouth is half open. It’s evening. He thought of me before he died. The pain is so great it can’t breathe, it gasps for air. Pain needs room. There are far too many people in the streets; I wish I were on a great plain all alone. Just before he died he must have spoken my name.” Of her spouse and his Nazi captors, she wrote: “I can’t tell the difference between the love I have for him and the hatred I bear them.” How to film the involutions of emotion, the suspense of thought itself?

Emmanuel Finkiel, Memoir of War, 2017, color, sound, 127 minutes.

Finkiel honors the laggard, grievous inwardness of Duras’s prose, as does Alexis Kavyrchine, who shot the film with a woozy shallow focus and low center of gravity. Perhaps it is a bit too often that Memoir of War resorts to blurs and reflections to evoke the fractures of Duras’s self, and maybe the skittering score of dissonant tones can be pesky and obvious. But mostly, the effort succeeds for its fidelity to the source, its inner tensions. (Thierry’s voice-over narration, brisk and tender, appears to have come verbatim from the page.) In her writing, Duras routinely shunted from first to third person, and here Finkiel echoes this tendency by sometimes having two Marguerites in the room. We behold one gazing out the window while her doppelgänger sits nearby, watching her with icy sangfroid. In another instance, Marguerite watches Marguerite powder a face already doubled in a mirror. Earlier drafts found after her death in 1996 debunk Duras’s claim that she published the diary untampered: “Literary polish strikes me as shameful,” Marguerite says at the movie’s onset, after asserting she’s changed nothing. Yet the film’s twinnings allude to the artifice required to turn trauma to story, the urge to intellectualize hurt but also the inevitable embellishments and self-estrangements language brings to one’s own suffering.

As in his debut feature, 1999’s Voyages, Finkiel movingly considers the Holocaust through daily life outside the camps, its brute undoing of individual imaginations. The film’s true power lies in Thierry’s performance, specifically her commanding, square-jawed face, here a mask of fatigue often still and illegible but never empty or neutral. Duras, a gifted auteur, once wrote that acting “doesn’t bring anything to a text. It detracts from it—lessens its immediacy and depth, weakens its muscles and dilutes its blood.” Thierry, in playing her, proves her wrong. However uneasy it makes us, her restrained channeling of Duras grounds the war as a private cataclysm rather than something devouring the entire world. And so for Marguerite, the revelry following Paris’s liberation becomes febrile and nightmarish. The faces she sees of freed survivors are faces that do not belong to Robert. Meanwhile, Madame Katz relines her absent daughter’s coats, fixes her shoes, mends her pockets.

Robert arrives, in hallucinations or flashbacks. When he finally returns for real, brought back to Paris from Dachau unrecognizable and moribund, a spluttering Marguerite at first refuses to see him—more out of shame than because her wants are torn between him and Dionys. “What is most precious: Robert Antelme, your own grief?” Dionys asks Marguerite, who doesn’t reply with words. She does, of course, reunite with Robert, and after he recoups his health, she tells him she wants a divorce so that she may bear Dionys’s child. We’re told this in voice-over, almost as an afterthought. In the end, viewers are left alone to pick apart the knotty, Durassian passions of War, which stays far from the realm of biopic and doesn’t bother with more intimate context (and myth) perhaps familiar to domestic audiences, such as her open marriage. That’s not to say Finkiel isn’t generous. After spending more than two hours with Marguerite, who is in nearly every frame, we’re given an unforgettable envoi that pries ajar any closure Robert’s homecoming provided. In it, Thierry delivers Duras’s elusive closing soliloquy in voice-over as the camera zooms in for a final shot that takes place a couple years later: Robert, standing alone on a Tuscan shore, pulled into a glimmering blur until he resembles a Giacometti, an emaciated silhouette shuddering into the universal, as though a memory too often recalled.

Memoir of War opens in New York on August 17 and in Los Angeles on August 24.