NEW YORK — The impact of Nazism on ordinary citizens remains a fascinating and heartbreaking subject, and films on this topic show no sign of easing up. Nor should they.
The latest, “Memoir of War,” based on Marguerite Duras’s autobiographical book published in 1985 (but written in part as a journal as events unfolded), is a punch to the gut — but also remarkable for its specificity. The details of Parisian life during its occupation (and the days just after liberation) can only be researched so far; to know it one has to have lived it.
Duras’s writerly radar was up in the 1940s, and her sensitivity was heightened as she struggled with the arrest and disappearance of her husband, Robert Antelme. Emmanuel Finkiel’s film, which approaches the material from a dreamy, artistic point of view, is bookended with visions of Robert’s return.
We don’t know if Marguerite (in an outstanding performance by Melanie Thierry) is dreaming or if trauma has led her to depersonalize. But we then cut back a year, as this headstrong young woman combats bureaucracy while, at first, merely trying to send him a parcel of clothes. (He was taken away in the night.)
As we dive in, what is so striking, but extremely important, is seeing how some members of French society easily adapt to the new regime. Things will get easier, people sigh, once the Germans finally win the war. A crowd shouts “traitor!” at someone in the street, and it is ambiguous if the bloodied young man is a collaborator or a member of the resistance.
Duras and her circle of intellectuals (including Samuel Biolay as Dionys Mascolo) meet in apartments to puff on cigarettes and talk about “next steps” while trading any news about colleagues who were captured as political prisoners.
During the first hour of “Memoir of War,” Duras tugs on a thread with a mid-level bureaucrat played by Benoît Magimel. He has aspirations of opening a bookstore after the war, and claims to be an admirer of Duras. He offers help, and says he’s working behind the scenes to ensure Robert’s safety.
It’s impossible to authenticate this, and as they meet surreptitiously in cafés, Duras wonders if he’s just interested in romancing her. The film head fakes into “Indecent Proposal” territory, but at the midway point shifts gears from spy film to a psychological plunge into despair.
The war ends. De Gaulle is a hero. POWs return. But not Robert. And Marguerite is furious. How can the people around her be celebrating amidst all this tragedy?
“No one speaks of Jews in Paris,” Duras intones in a voice over as she watches a streetcar returning with emaciated deportees, wearing the familiar stripes, riding through the streets of Paris.
In the strangest scene (one that is so odd that it smacks of truth) Marguerite and Dionys question skeletal Jewish survivors from Buchenwald (where Robert was last seen) as they are billeted, two-to-a-bed, in a luxury hotel.
Marguerite haunts the Gare de Lyon as trains bring back more men. The walls are covered with photos of the lost. She and a neighbor, Mrs. Katz, whose daughter is missing, agonize over when is the right time to give up hope. “Maybe it’s not true,” they say as they hear news of last minute executions at camps before the Allies came through.
This is not exactly what I call happy viewing. But Finkiel’s aesthetic isn’t brute, in-your-face miserableness. “Memoir of War” makes a strong case that anything, even anxiety and grief, can be rendered in a beautiful manner. There are many long, deceptively simple shots where the camera follows Marguerite through her anguished existence, shooting the back of her head in shallow focus. This is not a new technique to get audiences to empathize with a subject, but it is an effective one.
There’s an interesting footnote to this film. I admit to not exactly being a Marguerite Duras scholar. I know I was assigned one of her books in college (I still have it on my shelf) but I can’t say I remember it. I do love Alain Resnais’s film “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” for which she wrote the screenplay, and I recall the NC-17 adaptation of her book “The Lover” from the early 1990s. But after watching “Memoir of War” I did what I so often do whenever I’m finished with something: hit Wikipedia.
The setting of this film is from 1944 (not sure when exactly) through 1946.
As stated above, we see Duras meeting with her friends in the resistance. What we don’t see (or hear mentioned) is that from 1942 through some time in 1944, Duras worked for the Vichy government in an office that allocated paper to publishers, functioning as a de facto censorship office by refusing to apportion paper at will.
Considering the extent to which this movie is driven by resentment and anger toward fellow complacent or collaborationist French citizens, it seems like a missed opportunity to excise these facts.
I suppose it made for a cleaner story, and perhaps might be a true representation of the memoir as written. But for an endeavor rooted in realism, it is further evidence to not always trust the narrator.