Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 15, 2018 6:58 pm 
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Reliving Marguerite Duras' unbearable wait

"A Memoir of War" is a pretty limp version of the title of Marguerite Duras' typically obsessive, poetic memoir of the trauma of her Resistance husband's arrest during the last years of the War. The real title, an unforgettable one, is La douleur - Pain - and it rings out like a muffled scream. Emmanuel Finkiel has made an elegant, simple, yet stylized film version, presumably to introduce a younger generation to the book, and perhaps the writer. Duras' name is on many films for the writing, most famously Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour, which is a more important film and a better expression of the author's unique style.

There are moments when the haunting, repetitive style comes out in the new movie. There are also times when Marguerite (Mélanie Thierry) reappears twice in the same room, and the camera shifts to the second figure of her - perhaps a visual objective correlative for the repeated refrains.

Finkiel's film is simple, elegant, yet harrowing through its sheer length (127 minutes). It is also shot in extreme closeups, leading Cahiers du Cinéma's reviewer to claim - not without reason - that its model is the Hungarian Auschwitz monodrama, Son of Saul, or that the viewer makes a fuzzy re-edit of the two films into each other as she watches, a cannibalizing formalism turning Robert Antelme (Duras' Resistance husband taken away by the Nazis) into the hero of Son of Saul and nullifying both films. This conceit from Stéphane Delorme, Cahiers' critic, points to something we need to recognize. Finkiel's La douleur is a popularization, but also a formally very stylized one. One is never unaware of its visual gestures, its consistent look.

This is an emotionally complex as well as exhausting story but also a simple one, with only three characters: Marguerite; Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magimel), the collaborator obsessed with her; and Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), her husband's best friend. The two men are torments and foils for Marguerite. The whole process of obsessively pursuing news of her missing husband is saved from pure insanity by Marguerite's playing off the two men. Rabier is richly embodied by Benoît Magimel, who has grown blowsy and overweight, his face sensuous and dull, a façade we can't see past, and this is perfect because he is not quite real. This, as Delorme understood, is like Son of Saul a monodrama, and much of the action is going on purely in Marguerite's, the writer Duras', head, and, of course, the film is dominated by her, Thierry's voiceover.

Thierry, at least for me, is the real surprise. Though it was far from her first appearance - she was in a number of TV films - she first drew attention as the titular Princess of Montpensier, well-served by the venerable and reliable Bertrand Tavernier, but a pretty young thing in a somewhat superficial movie (though it got her the "Meilleur espoir féminin" César), who began as an early school dropout to be in ads and do modeling. Who would expect her to be as weathered and war-weary, at only 37? It must be credited to dedication, and smoking a lot of cigarettes, as everybody does to excess in this film, even for French people. Joking aside, the bloom of girlish prettiness is off Thierry now, and she's ripe for serious roles from here on.

This adaptation of Duras' autobiographical novel is made more specific here, naming actual names not mentioned by Duras. Here are the details. It's June 1944, and France is still under the German occupation. The writer and communist Robert Antelme, a major figure of the Resistance, is arrested and deported. His young wife Marguerite Duras, writer and resistant, is torn by the anguish of not having news of him and her secret affair with her comrade Dionys. She meets a French agent working at the Gestapo, Pierre Rabier, and, ready to do anything to find her husband, puts himself to the test of an ambiguous relationship with this troubled man, only to be able to help him. The end of the war and the return of the camps announce to Marguerite Duras the beginning of an unbearable wait, a slow and silent agony in the midst of the chaos of the Liberation of Paris. And the happy ending is perhaps not so happy, or a real ending.

You can play this over and over and over in your mind, to understand it. You can read the book, preferably in French, and you can rewatch this film, which deserves our respect and is, properly, respectful toward its autobiographical novel source while judiciously avoiding hagiography. Highly recommended.

The spare, angst-ridden score, evoking musique concrète, is by Nicolas Becker. The cinematographer is Alexis Kavyrchine.

See Guy Lodge's more detailed review for Variety.

A Memoir of War/La douleur, 127 mins., debuted at Angoulême Aug. 2017; three other listed festivals. Theatrically released in France 24 Jan. 2018 to raves from critics (AlloCiné press rating 4.0). Screened for this review at the Unifrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center 2018 New York Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

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