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Memoir of War (La Douleur) (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 7, 2020

Memoir of War (La Douleur)


Starring Mélanie Thierry, Benoit Magimel, Benjamin Biolay, Shulamit Adar, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Emmanuel Bourdieu, Anne-Lise Heimburger, Patrick Lizana, Joanna Grudzinska, Caroline Ducey, Salomé Richard, Olivier Veillon, Bertrand Schefer, Mathias Labelle, Nathan Gabily and François Prodromidès.

Screenplay by Emmanuel Finkiel.

Directed by Emmanuel Finkiel.

Distributed by Music Box Films. 126 minutes. Not Rated.

World War II and the Holocaust are such a massive, complicated, tragic subject that it can be (and has been) treated in a myriad of ways on screen. Memoir of War (La Douleur), based upon a section of a novel by French author Marguerite Duras (author of many books including The Lover, The Sea Wall, Agatha and screenwriter of the classic art-house film Hiroshima Mon Amour), looks at the war from the home front. It comes from the point of view of a Parisian wife (Duras herself) whose husband is captured in the Nazi invasion. She spends months trying to find out what has become of her husband, while attempting to help the resistance and aiding other family members desperate to track down their loved ones.

It is a slightly hands-off approach to the conflict, which is not to say one that is not a powerful one, in its own way. We see no actual battles – only the occasional long shot of planes flying overhead or sudden clamor of air raid sirens going off. At this point on history, none of the people of Paris know about the atrocities of the concentration camps. Therefore, we are only introduced to that horror late in the film, after the fact, when the emaciated survivors start to return after the war is over. The only Nazi character we see for any extended time in the film is soft-spoken and courtly, though the lead character (and the audience) knows that he is not to be trusted.

The book La Douleur (The War: A Memoir) was an autobiographical novel published by Duras in 1985, somewhat fictionalized, but mostly based upon journals that Duras had written during the war decades earlier. Duras apparently claimed that she did not remember much of what she had written back in the 40s, though perhaps it is not surprising that someone would tend to – consciously or subconsciously – try to forget that period in their life.

The film version is tense and well-acted, a terse mixture of spy drama and tragic love.

Mélanie Thierry is very good, if just a tiny bit understated, as Duras. She negotiates a harrowing series of emotions and roadblocks waiting as her then-husband, Robert Antelme, was arrested by the Gestapo for being a member of the French Resistance. (The French title La Douleur is simply translated as “pain.”)

The first hour covers the end of the occupation of Paris. Duras tries desperately to find information about her husband, while she is apparently toyed with by a seemingly kind and smitten Nazi collaborator named Rabier (Benoit Magimel) who dangles access to her husband and a cushier life for him, though Duras sincerely doubts his ability to deliver on his promises.

In the meantime, Duras tries to take some of his place in the resistance, helping Robert’s best friend Dionys (Benjamin Biolay) fight the Nazis as she becomes closer to him, she comes to realize that she didn’t know her husband as well as she thought.

And yet, with all this action swirling around her, Duras is not even the most interesting character in the film. That would probably be a supporting character, played by Shulamit Adar, a middle-aged woman staying with Duras and trying to stay optimistic while awaiting information on the fate of her daughter, who was taken away to the concentration camps.

As is always the case with films about the Holocaust, Memoir of War is quietly devastating. It is also a fascinating look at yet one more angle of a truly horrifying conflict.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: August 24, 2018.

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