Life — Or Something Like It — During Wartime: The Wrenching 'Memoir Of War' Mélanie Thierry's quietly devastating performance anchors this adaptation of Marguerite Duras' wartime memoir chronicling her life in a perpetual state of uncertainty over her husband's fate.
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Life — Or Something Like It — During Wartime: The Wrenching 'Memoir Of War'

Mélanie Thierry is writer Marguerite Duras in Memoir of War. Music Box Films hide caption

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Mélanie Thierry is writer Marguerite Duras in Memoir of War.

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Marguerite waits in a large room for news of her husband. It is the spring of 1945 in Nazi-occupied Paris, and Germany's power is slipping, yet the S.S.'s grip over her home is only becoming bloodier. Marguerite is part of the Resistance, as was her husband, Robert, which is why the Gestapo now has him imprisoned. As she waits for her appointment, she sees a young woman exit from hers — makeup strewn, dress disfigured. She's clearly been violated. But Marguerite doesn't run. She confronts the officer in charge for answers to her husband's capture ... and will confront him again, many more times, before all is said and done.

This is Marguerite Duras, one of France's most renowned writers and beloved by cinephiles for her screenplay to the postwar classic Hiroshima Mon Amour, which told of a failed love between a Frenchwoman and a Japanese man in the aftermath of the atomic bomb. But to find postwar success, she must first survive the war. Based on the book La Douleur, Duras's diaries of her life under Vichy France, Memoir of War is less the story of a wife waiting for her husband than an account of what it means to wait for anyone in wartime. The days are long and interminable; the mind is singularly focused even when it'd rather not be. The film precisely renders for us an emotional agony that never ends.

Marguerite is played by Mélanie Thierry (The Zero Theorem), and the performance is a devastating one: unease and confusion with nowhere to direct it. Thierry's work is all the more impressive because the film never lets us see her character when things are going well, but in her cycles of pacing and smoking, the actress shows us how one lives in a permanent state of rattle.

Marguerite's quest to find Robert isn't born of devotion to a husband, but of a more existential need to rebuild the ground under her feet, and so Thierry never lets her emotional unease be read as mere wifely duty. She matches wits brilliantly with Benoît Magimel as Pierre Rabier, the French Gestapo officer who imprisoned Robert (Magimel puts his powers of charming duplicity to far better use here than in Netflix's horrible series Marseille). Rabier remains confident Germany will pull through, and escorts Marguerite to flirty dinners at collaborator restaurants, where he assures the worried patrons those pesky Allied bombers won't be inching much closer. Unnervingly, he is also a fan of the author's work, suggesting that art can travel to places too dark for its message to penetrate. Their power dynamics briefly shift during an air raid, when the film generates a thrilling image of the two embracing, for indeterminate reasons, under cover of shuttered windows and sirens.

Memoir of War doesn't allow much for subplots or deviations, which can feel claustrophobic after a while if you find yourself craving anything in the way of forward momentum. Duras's book emphasizes different aspects of the story, but writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel keeps his focus on the difficulties of doing nothing as information fails to arrive. Marguerite has another complicated intimate relationship with Dionys (Benjamin Biolay), her group's Resistance leader, who hovers around the perimeter of her anguish waiting to be invited in. But it's hard to get a good read on their situation, which is mostly expressed by Dionys's opinions on whatever Marguerite happens to be doing.

Considering how formally innovative Hiroshima was – how its mix of voiceover narration, documentary footage and jumbled chronology of scenes turned time itself into a new tool for visual storytelling – it's odd to find Memoir of War attempting few such tricks, especially since both stories deal with deep gashes in historical memory. The movie is clearly putting its actors before any stylistic quirks, and Finkiel makes decisions meant to keep the focus on Thierry's magnificent performance. Several times he depicts Marguerite in two spaces at once, watching herself from the bed or the top of the stairs, a familiar trick that still allows Thierry to show how someone can simultaneously act and feel powerless in extraordinary circumstances.

The most affecting scenes, both for Thierry and for the film as a whole, come in the second half once the war has been "won." Marguerite and Dionys survey the damage for signs of Robert, wondering what good they've done. Other characters, some without names, search desperately for loved ones who haven't returned. And then once Robert is finally located, his barely-alive body practically disintegrating, Marguerite tearfully struggles to comprehend the truth of what may be before her. Thierry delivers one of the most painful scenes of the year as she wails out her devastating emotional contradiction: After having come all this way, having stated so plainly her need to have one specific person next to her in order to survive everything this war has put her through, she might not be able to face that person after all.