Monday, August 13, 2018

Memoir of War: Duras During the Occupation

Marguerite Duras and two of her husbands all resigned from the Communist Party—and then they were expelled. For Robert Antelme (#1) and Dionys Mascolo (#2), it was in protest of Stalinist show trials and gulags, but it was more about aesthetics for Duras. The three former resistance members had a rather unconventional relationship that is only obliquely hinted at in Emmanuel Finkiel’s Memoir of War (trailer here), an adaptation of Duras’s autobiographical novel, which opens Friday in New York.

In the opening voice-over, Duras claims she does not remember writing this diary of her experiences during the second German occupation (the first happened during WWI) and its aftermath, but she recognizes her handwriting and the events contained therein. She will not alter a word because they were the direct product of the time (despite being a rather grave breach of security) and she also asserts “literary polish strikes me as shameful”—words that should probably be engraved in marble above the entrance to Gallimard’s offices.

The war has ended, but Antelme has not yet returned from the concentration camps. It is like the entire nation has been invited to a victory party except her. The film then flashes back to shortly after his capture. Her efforts to send Antelme warmer clothes attracts the attention of Pierre Rabier, the collaborator-cop who arrested him. For some reason, Rabier develops an obsessive interest in Madame Antelme, partly in the hope that she will lead him to more resistance members, but he also seems to have a weirdly misplaced literary fetish.

Arguably, Memoir is equally fascinating as an intimate examination of Duras’s psyche under stress and an example of how the WWII occupation is seen through a contemporary French lens. For instance, Francois Mitterand is only referred to by his code-name, “Morand.” Oddly, Rabier tries to pry his whereabouts out of Duras, but as a Vichy government official, he should have been relatively easy to find. The film also makes you wonder, despite whatever Finkiel’s intentions might have been, when Rabier menacingly claims Antelme was betrayed by one of his closest comrades.

Regardless, Melanie Thierry is terrific as Duras nee Antelme, despite looking nothing like the novelist. She deserves credit for her willingness to appear haggard and unglamorous, portraying Duras at some of her lowest and most unpleasant moments. Indeed, Finkiel’s adaptation includes some decidedly cutting observations that will discomfort viewers looking for a blandly heroic TV movie ending.

Benoît Magimel is terrific as Rabier, but in a consistently unpredictable sort of way. His verbal sparring sessions with Thierry are electric. Yet, it is Shulamit Adar who really delivers the emotional payoff as Madame Katz, a Jewish survivor living with Duras while hoping to find her deported daughter.

Finkiel’s strategy of using Duras’s own text is a double-edged sword. Sometimes her words are razor-sharp (again, how about that “literary polish”), but the poetic interludes sometimes undermine the atmosphere of danger and paranoia with their hazy gauziness. Still, Finkiel’s respect for his source material is admirable. He also gets some award-worthy performances from Thierry, Magimel, and Adar. Respectfully recommended for patrons of French cinema, Memoir of War opens this Friday (8/17) in New York, at the freshly expanded Film Forum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.