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MEMOIR OF WAR film review – by Cate Marquis

Melanie Thierry is haunting in French-language MEMOIR OF WAR based on  Marguerite Duras’ novel of her  experiences in WWII Paris

– By Cate Marquis –

Melanie Thierry gives a haunting performance in director Emmanuel Finkiel’s finely-crafted MEMOIR OF WAR. This beautiful and powerful French-language drama is an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ partly-autobiographical novel “The War: A Memoir” about her experiences in Paris in World War II.

In Nazi-occupied Paris 1944, Marguerite Duras and her husband Robert Antelme are members of the French Resistance when Robert is arrested by the Gestapo. Seeking answers about her husband’s fate, Marguerite (Melanie Thierry) goes to the local authorities, where French police are working with the Gestapo. In the waiting room, she is approached by a French collaborator, Rabier (Benoit Magimel), who offers to help her find out where her husband is being held. Sensing Rabier’s romantic interest, Marguerite begins a cat-and-mouse relationship in which she probes for information about her husband’s fate as the policeman probes for information about the Resistance.

The leader of Marguerite’s French Resistance cell, Morland (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), and other members of the cell back up her risky mission, but Marguerite’s main emotional support is her husband’s best friend Dionys (Benjamin Biolay), also a member of the Resistance cell. As the months of Robert’s absence drag on, the situation shifts from tense suspense and fear, to more a test of endurance, as Marguerite waits for news and begins to contemplate the unthinkable.

Marguerite Duras’s novel was groundbreaking, but the author also wrote the screenplay for the groundbreaking film HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR. Director Emmanuel Finkiel also has impressive post-war credentials, having been assistant director to three of the biggest cinematic names of the era: Bertrand Tavernier, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Jean-Luc Goddard.

Director Finkiel, who also adapted Duras’ novel for the screen, gets all the period details right and events unfold through graceful, delicate photography by director of photography Alexis Kavyrchine. Despite the lovely images, this is an emotionally powerful drama filled with realism and hard truths.

Told with a light but sure hand, the director puts the focus on Thierry’, allowing her performance to carry the narrative. The drama not only shows us the tensions of events unfolding in Marguerite’s life but takes us takes us inside her thoughts and inner life, through sometimes dream-like imagery and voice-over narration drawn from Duras’ own writing. The film opens with Duras re-discovering a forgotten diary she kept during the war, and periodically that contemporary Marguerite observes herself as she goes through her anguished ordeal of waiting, meaning there are two Marguerites, in different emotional states on screen at the same time.

Finkiel structures his film to take us out of usual expectations. Rather than beginning in a conventional way, the story begins with the author revisiting her memories through a forgotten diary, flashing back to 1945, then further back to 1944. But her recollections in 1944 begin not with the couple’s work in the Resistance, but after her husband has already been arrested. It is all about her experience, the search for information, the waiting and not knowing, and her anguish in that.

Despite the many films about WWII, few if any focus on the experience of women in wartime, often presenting them only as background characters. MEMOIR OF WAR focuses directly on one woman’s wartime experiences, giving a fresh and rarely seen viewpoint on a frequently-covered slice of history. This is Marguerite’s personal journey but the search for information and the prolonged waiting extends the story beyond the personal story, to become a tale of all who wait for the return of loved ones in wartime and its aftermath. In some respects, it is particularly the experience of women in WWII, waiting for the return of men who left to fight or at least news of them, but also it is the experience of women with war throughout time.

Melanie Thierry is superb in this role, one that seems sure to capture critical and international attention. Thierry is masterful, with the play of complex emotion across her pale, expressive face ranging from a steely stoicism to fear to despair to cynicism. She is by turns vulnerable and powerful, crumbling and relentless. At times, we see both the present and remembered Marguerite in the same shot, with the woman who is remembering coolly observing the earlier self in the midst of the experience. Thierry shifts from emotion to emotion rapidly but believably in some scenes, such as when she is meeting with Rabier in a cafe on the eve of the Allied invasion, and moves from fear to hope.

The strong cast also includes Patrick Lizana as Resistance member Beauchamp and Emmanuel Bourdieu as Robert Antelme. Especially good is Benoit Magimel as Rabier the collaborator, who hopes to extract information about the Resistance from his meetings with Marguerite, But Rabier is also drawn to her in part because she is an author and an intellectual, someone usually outside his social reach. Early on, he tells her he is honored to be in the presence of a writer, “even a woman writer” and then tells her of his ambition to open a bookstore, a social climbing aspect to his collaboration with the Nazis. As Dionys, Benjamin Biolay strikes the right balance between being supportive and trying to keep Marguerite grounded in reality with blunt honesty in her darkest moments.

Two women characters are particular striking, illustrating aspects of the women who wait. One is a young mother Mrs. Bordes (Anne-Lise Heimburger), so despondent that her husband has not returned that she takes to her bed, leaving her children to fend for themselves. A larger, more emotionally-moving role is that of Mrs. Katz, played with heartbreaking sincerity by Shulamit Adar, a Jewish woman from Lyon who comes to stay with Marguerite as she waits for the return of her daughter. The daughter has a bad leg from polio but in contrast to Marguerite’s emotional roller coaster, Mrs. Katz is ever hopeful, despite rumors about how the Nazis treat the disabled.

MEMOIR OF WAR is a film that excels on all levels. This is a powerful film, for its tense wartime emotions and exploration of inner life but also for its unusual exploration of the overlooked experience of women in wartime, a viewpoint rarely seen on screen despite the many films about WWII. This is a drama worth seeing for everyone, and one to remember come awards season.

MEMOIR OF WAR, in French with English subtitles, opens Friday, August 24, at Plaza Frontenac Cinema.