Memoir Of War (La douleur)

France (2017) Dir. Emmanuel Finkiel

We Brits have a reputation for being patient when it comes to waiting in the eyes of the rest of the world, though this isn’t strictly true, as we get as antsy as anyone else. Then again, waiting for a bus is less a strain of the nerves than waiting to hear news about the condition and safety of a loved one taken away as a prisoner of war.

In the last few months of World War II in Nazi occupied France, writer Marguerite Duras (Mélanie Thierry) awaits the return of her husband Robert Antelme, arrested for being a resistance fighter and deported to a concentration camp. Unaware if he is dead or alive, Marguerite desperately tries to find news about her husband, eventually catching the attention of Nazi collaborating police officer Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magimel).

Rabier calls Marguerite out on daily basis to ensure her Robert is still alive and he is doing his best to bring him home, but Marguerite suspects Rabier isn’t being honest. As time passes and hope fades, Marguerite begins an affair with one of Robert’s colleagues, Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay). Then news arrives that the war is over.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by the real Marguerite Duras, a maverick author, screenwriter and filmmaker in her own right, Memoir Of War is a misleading title. The original title La douleur translates to “pain”, referring to the anxious wait for Robert to return home – it was only when the book was translated into English it was re-titled War: A Memoir.

Duras’ novel is said to be a confusing literary work, in which the lines between reality and fiction are blurred through the author’s hazy memory of writing the 40 year-old diaries upon which she referred to for the story. There is evidence of this uncertainty in Emmanuel Finkiel’s adaptation, hinting that the episodes he chose to cover were flexible enough to survive the transition to the visual medium though sadly not all of them successfully make the grade.

Quite early on, it becomes apparent this is a film with niche appeal, limited to fans of Duras and this particular novel, beginning at a strange point then seemingly jumping back in time a few months. Duras provides her own narration, which is not a new ploy, but in this instance is a distraction for two reasons – one, she talks in a profound literary manner which nobody in real life does, and two, it is quite omnipotent, cropping up when it isn’t necessary, coming off like an audio descriptive service or a radio play.

Even when she isn’t narrating in a verbose and lyrical manner, Duras speaks the same way in person, making her a very difficult protagonist to warm to, instead painting her as a pretentious tragedienne who needs the pain to justify her existence. Far be it for me to judge the real Duras or impugn her character, but this on-screen representation is far from flattering, which we can only assume is the fictional element of her work.

For the first hour, the film consists mostly of Marguerite sitting around smoking, walking about smoking, or waiting (and smoking) in various public places for Rabier to arrive for their daily dalliances. They then adjourn to a restaurant, café or bar and Rabier offers Marguerite glimmers of hope that her husband is alive and well, and plans to bring him home are in motion.

But, Marguerite doesn’t believe Rabier, suspecting he is playing her to get information about other resistance members, and responds by smoking some more and mumbling away in her usual arcane lyrical manner. When Rabier disappears after this, the second hour is more of the same, except Rabier has been supplanted by Dionys, with whom she gets along much better.

The waiting game is of course torturous for anyone, especially when the stakes are a matter of life and death, the mantra “no news is good news” being as useful as a paper condom. Unfortunately for the audience, Finkiel is determined to make us endure Duras’ torture with this ploddingly flaccid account of her plight. Again, this is not to undermine or denigrate Duras’ experiences but the reason nobody dared to film this novel for over 30 years becomes alarmingly obvious.

Although we cannot comprehend the pain and suffering Duras and others in the same position must have felt during this period, there is barely any indication of this, save for two last minute bursts of emotional fatigue. Prior to this, Marguerite is a blank slate, inexpressive, unemotional at best, disinterested at worst, telling us nothing of how she is really feeling and coping with this agonising wait.

Inner turmoil is one thing – this is more interred turmoil, buried so deep beneath the cigarette smoke and emotionally inert facial expressions, it is Robert who should be concerned if Marguerite is still alive (if she hasn’t already succumbed to lung cancer)! Yet, it is ironic that this means Mélanie Thierry is doing a good job in her performance if she can be restrained and detached in the face of portraying a character enduring such crushing distress.

With its ponderous pacing, lugubrious moods, and longueurs heavy structure, there isn’t much to engage anyone unfamiliar with the source material or adverse to arthouse cinema, but Finkiel seems unconcerned by this. All art is subjective, so any audience it can win over is reward enough, but one suspects the gravitas of Duras’ name would parlay into something for this film by association, which doesn’t feel the case at all

Duras won praise for her trenchant commentary on the war itself, but this has been lost during the journey from page to screen. Decidedly flat, dull and with an ending to make us feel we’ve wasted our time, Memoir Of War will have an appreciative audience somewhere, just not with this writer, though I do sympathise with Duras and anyone else in her position, then and now.