In the vastness of war’s impact, waiting takes on a special kind of psychological peril. One waits for death or freedom, and sometimes, each can seem like the other. But what made the World War II remembrances of French author Marguerite Duras (“Hiroshima Mon Amour,” “The Lover”) so charged — specifically her torment wondering about the fate of her husband Robert Antelme, a captured Resistance member sent to concentration camps — is that the waiting became not some drawn-out limbo after which one returns to life but, in its own right, a kind of complexly universal human condition.
“Memoir of War” is director Emmanuel Finkiel’s fragmented adaptation of Duras’ semi-autobiographical wartime diaries (published in 1985 as “La Douleur”), with Mélanie Thierry offering a commanding portrayal of Duras as a woman in an exquisite hell of steadfastness, inscrutability and suffering.
But as an attempt to dramatize Duras’s agonizing wait for Robert’s return (alive or dead) in a cinematic manner that does justice to the acclaimed novelist-screenwriter’s attention to inner turmoil, while still fueling the narrative tension in a harrowing scenario, it is primarily a valiant misfire. Resolutely somber, and self-aware about its deliberately tight and opaque visual style, it’s presentational more than lived, a series of filmmaking choices instead of something deeply felt and conveyed.
The first hour is Duras as a confused, chain-smoking, persevering figure, toggling between desperate inquiries about Robert’s whereabouts to an accommodating Gestapo figure named Rabier (Benoît Magimel) — who flirts in return because he admires her work — and secret Resistance meetings in which members express concern that Duras is being played by Rabier to suss them out. The Duras/Rabier scenes in which they circle each other suggest a queasy wartime-affair melodrama, while her narration, culled from the writer’s own words, clues us in to the churning inside, characteristic of French people making do under Vichy rule: “I’m afraid I’ll be killed, ashamed to be alive.”
When Liberation arrives, Duras cannot connect to all the dancing, kissing and celebrating in the streets, because Robert is never among the returning POWs who flood the stations. Her Resistance confidante and sometime lover Dionys (Benjamin Bioly) loses his patience with her displays of pessimistic sorrow, calling her grief “precious” and earning a mighty slap. But with reunions happening all around her, and word of camp horrors eking out, she still feels shackled to war’s miseries.
With scenes in which images deliberately blur, mirrors or shadows dominate and Duras occasionally watches her own self in the confines of her apartment, “Memoir of War” is unafraid to step outside its subject’s interiority to aesthetically intellectualize this suffering. Sometimes this strikes a chord, especially when Thierry’s performance, or Duras’s words, are given their due. The introduction of a Yiddish-speaking, older neighbor Mrs. Katz (Shulamit Adar), awaiting word on the fate of her Jewish daughter, also provides a stinging contrast and a poignant reminder that rumors are sometimes more comforting than news.
But eventually Finkiel’s remove starts to feel like a missed opportunity, as if his reverence for Duras’ aching state, increasingly divorced from her feelings for Robert, were the go-ahead to keep his movie from being too emotionally concentrated. As the movie starts, there’s a beautifully color-drained close-up shot as Finkiel’s camera starts on Thierry’s face, meanders over an open window, goes in and out of focus and rests, hesitantly, on a teacup. It’s a mood-setting shot of claustrophobic artistry that also reveals the movie’s own impenetrable mindset: to be as near to Duras’s grief as possible, without ever really engaging it.
‘Memoir of War’
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 24, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino