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Waiting game in Memoir of War

31 May, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Mélanie Theirry movingly portrays Marguerite Duras in Memoir of War

Directed by Emmanuel Finkiel
Certificate 12a

A CAPTIVATING lead performance by Mélanie Theirry raises this French-language drama about a woman searching for answers about the disappearance of her husband during the dark years of the German occupation of Paris.

Her measured, painful and believable role means for all of its obvious narrative tricks, Memoir of War is a moving study of the pain of simply not knowing what has happened to a loved one.

From an opening scene where she scans the faces of returning soliders on a packed station platform, searching desperately for the one that will change the course of her life, to grief-induced psychosis where she believes he is with her, this film has a heavy cloud of loss hanging over it.

The collective, worldwide psychological effect of the two world wars can hardly be gauged – so vast, great and deep, it defies understanding today what my grandparents’ generation went through.

To peer into the past and try to understand – and then, perhaps, learn how to ensure it does not happen again, has been helped by the stories of the individuals who lived through it.

French author Marguerite Duras took until the 1980s to confront her post-war past with her autobiography, drawn from diaries she penned during the Occupation, and it is her story that is adapted here.

As Duras waits for information in a cold, impersonal hall that represents the faceless bureaucracy that has to deal with the tangled personal mess caused by conflict, she is about to give up all hope. Then French intelligence officer Pierre (Benoit Magimel) appears and in her desperate circum­stances, anyone paying her cause the slightest bit of interest is welcome – despite his collaboration with the powers that have taken her loved one away from her.

He has taken a shine to a woman who is almost certainly a widow, but has yet to accept this. She hopes he may help her, bolstered by his willingness to take a parcel of her husband’s clothes and see if he can get them to the disappeared – a cruel glimpse of the hope she cannot quite bring herself to let go of.

Memoir of War stands up on the excellence of the performances, and the fact the recreation of Paris of the period feels faithful and true. This is a powerful statement of the effect of war on the individual – something the politicians moving toy tanks across maps can do with being reminded. The dramatic use of voice-overs, flashbacks and over telling of parts of the story are less convincing – Thierry’s ability in the lead is enough to draw the viewer in.

The book this film is based on had the same power as Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Français, and as with that book, it is refreshing to connect to the stories of the civilians left behind.

It also feels closer in truth to such French recollections as shown in the 1968 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, which laid bare the issues over collaboration and resistance, the stark choice facing French people as individuals faced intense pressure to find their own ways to survive the horror of war.


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