'Memoir of War' ('La Douleur'): Film Review | San Sebastian 2017

Ensures Duras endures.

Melanie Thierry plays Marguerite Duras in an adaptation of the writer's semi-autobiographical texts set during and immediately after World War II.

[Editor's note: This review for Memoir of War was first published when the film was titled Memoir of Pain.]

Melanie Thierry leaps toward the front echelon of current French actresses with her riveting turn as Marguerite Duras in Emmanuel Finkiel's slow-burning Memoir of Pain (La Douleur). A relatively conventional movie about a prodigious polymath whose own filmmaking exploits were groundbreaking, even scandal-stoking in their radicalism, it absorbingly dramatizes certain key episodes from the legendary writer's private life in Paris during 1944-45.

Having premiered in somewhat low-key style at Angouleme's festival of Francophone cinema last month, Memoir of Pain now bows internationally in the main competition at San Sebastian, where Thierry looks a strong frontrunner for best actress honors. She could be a contender for similar honors at the Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, if the film — provisionally set for French release in January — nabs a qualifying run in Paris. The ongoing popularity of Duras' name in educated circles worldwide could also yield limited theatrical exposure in other territories.

Thierry was nominated for best supporting actress at this year's awards for The Dancer, having won female newcomer honors with 2009's One for the Road. But she had already been in features for more than a decade, debuting as a teenager in Giuseppe Tornatore's The Legend of 1900 (1998). Thierry was the alluring female lead opposite Tim Roth, playing an enigmatic beauty known only as The Girl. Spool forward 19 years, and the sometime model is now most emphatically playing The Woman, stepping into the shoes, skin and mind of one of the 20th century's most revered and influential creative forces.

A highly successful novelist, memoirist and screenwriter — Oscar-nominated for Alain Resnais' classic Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) — Duras was also a philosopher and intellectual of daunting reputation. Director Finkiel, himself a Cesar winner for best short and best debut feature (for 1999's Voyages), sets himself the tough task of adapting her 1985 collection of texts later translated into English as The War: A Memoir.

As was her wont, Duras deliberately and profitably blurred the line between autobiography and fiction with these writings: A wide-ranging, self-questioning reflection on her imperfect recollections of World War II, the book was hailed for its hideously detailed descriptions of emaciated POWs freed from German camps in 1945. Rather than trying to replicate Duras' structural ingenuity or transfer the distinctly literary enigmas of her work to the big screen (the latter are paralleled by occasional focus manipulations by cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine), he instead settles for a fairly straightforward series of episodes, intermittently narrated by Duras at an unspecified later date.

These are built around our chain-smoking heroine's ongoing efforts to deal with the painful absence of her husband, Robert (Emmanuel Bourdieu, barely glimpsed), a prominent Resistance member taken prisoner by the occupying German forces. The first half of the film pivots on Duras' uneasy friendship with top cop Rabier — the formerly svelte and blond Benoit Magimel, now imposingly bulky and raven-maned — who, as a well-placed collaborator with the Nazis, may or may not be able to improve the captive Robert's situation.

A self-regarding aesthete with cultural pretensions of his own, Rabier is entranced by the attentions of a respected novelist such as Duras. The duo meet quasi-clandestinely and repeatedly in what plays like a sinister parody of romantic relationships, across scenes that showcase the production's unfussily elegant period design and Finkiel's strengths as a writer, giving his two stars ample opportunity to shine. After Rabier exits the scene around the one-hour mark, the focus shifts more to Duras' personal struggles as she deals with the grinding suspense of "not knowing." 

Duras drifts somewhat absently into the arms of Robert's Resistance colleague Dionys (Samuel Biolay), setting the scene for Robert's climactic return and a jarring coda that may leave many viewers naggingly unsatisfied. Having spent two hours pining and moping so agonizingly for her husband's return, Duras (via Finkiel) now pulls the rug right out from under our feet. Duras' apparently capricious actions here won't, of course, be any surprise to admirers familiar with her life story or the subsequent doings of Dionys and Robert (whose liberation and delivery to Paris was actually effected by no less a future eminence than Francois Mitterrand!).

But Finkiel's chosen narrative structure feels distinctly lopsided, especially given the longueurs and repetitions which set in during those scenes where Duras is seen waiting, writing, waiting, writing, usually in dingily underlit interiors. Fortunately for all concerned, Thierry is utterly convincing and compelling from first to last, in a deglamorized but sensual performance of tautly controlled severity and uncompromising rigor. Duras truly lets her guard down only twice — a wine-fueled last lunch with Rabier in which her well-concealed contempt for the collaborator cop rises to the surface, and a final-act breaking of the emotional dam immediately before Robert's return — and Thierry nails every fluctuation of mood.

Cesar voters should also take note of Shulamit Adar, an Israeli actress whose handful of big-screen credits include the co-lead role in Finkiel's Voyages. As Mme Katz, an elderly, kindly Jewish woman whose handicapped daughter has also been abducted by the Nazis, she appears in only three scenes — and breaks our heart in all three.

Production company: Les Films du Poisson
Cast: Melanie Thierry, Benoit Magimel, Samuel Biolay, Shulamit Adar, Emmanuel Bourdieu
Director-screenwriter: Emmanuel Finkiel, based on the book by Marguerite Duras
Producers: Yael Fogiel, Laetitia Gonzalez
Cinematographer: Alexis Kavyrchine
Production designer: Pascal Leguellec
Costume designer: Anais Romand
Editor: Sylvie Lager
Composer: Nicolas Becker
Casting directors: Antoinette Boulat, Richard Rousseau, Joanna Grudzinska
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: TF1, Paris

In French
126 minutes