There’s more to war than storming beaches and moving pieces on a map. In the Nazi-occupied France of Memoir of War, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras, the war hangs over the country like the growing shadow of a falling object. Even though life remains largely the same on the surface—aside from the Nazi flags that hang from buildings and the occasional patrol—there’s the inescapable feeling that something terrible is coming, but nobody knows when or from what direction.
While the country is holding its collective breath, Marguerite (Melanie Thierry) is exhausting hers. Her husband has been captured by the Gestapo and sent to Dachau (a concentration camp) for his participation in a resistance group, which she is also a member. As she desperately attempts to acquire as much information on her husband as she can, she turns to the aid of a Nazi agent, who is in love with her and, therefore, willing to share what he knows. At the same time, Marguerite becomes increasingly lost in her thoughts as she attempts to grapple with her emotions and rationalize her irrational life. If she found out her husband was dead, life could go on, but ignorance leaves her in a recurring nightmare.
“…she turns to the aid of a Nazi agent, who is in love with her…”
All of this comes through because writer/director Emmanuel Finkiel doesn’t fall for the narrative traps that lend themselves so well to the familiar. There are love triangles and espionage aspects of the story that would be tempting to exploit for a low cost and a low reward, but that would be ignoring the story’s true value: the long reach of war. The revelation of what happened to Marguerite’s husband only compounds this idea. If “what happened” isn’t bad enough, it’s almost always followed by the equally terrifying, “what happens next?
Because Finkiel wants to enshroud us in a time, a place, and a frame of mind, all of which happen to be in a state of uncertainty, some might find fault with the movie’s own uncertainty. At times, it feels like a crazy person walking back and forth in a small room, muttering to itself, but that’s consistent with its purpose. Marguerite’s inner monologue, a voiceover by way of her diary, isn’t always the most revealing or interesting content, but it builds on the atmosphere.
“If ‘what happened’ isn’t bad enough, it’s almost always followed by the equally terrifying, ‘what happens next?’”
One of the unfortunate things about history is that individuals tend to get lost in the mix. We remember the names of events and the names of the people in charge, but that’s hardly sufficient for creating the most accurate image of the past. Every once in a while, the story of an individual slips through the cracks. Memoir of War is one of those stories and, as such, provides an unseen perspective to a plotline that we all know well.
Memoir of War (2018) Written and directed by Emmanuel Finkiel. Starring Melanie Thierry, Benoit Magimel, Benjamin Biolay, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Emmanuel Bourdieu, Anne-Lise Heimburger, Patrick Lizana, Shulamit Adar.
7 out of 10 stars