By Elizabeth Toohey.
Sometimes, on my weirder, darker days, I fantasize about being the architect of a purgatory. There, I would place Mark Zuckerberg – who has lately said he sees no need to take down Holocaust denials posted on Facebook because, you know, “there are things that different people get wrong” – and have him view Emmanuel Finkiel’s film adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ Memoir of War. He would be released after committing to dedicating himself (in the redo of his life I would allow him) to ensure that his platform did not post death threats, rape threats, false news, and/or especially Holocaust denial posing as “free speech.”
Memoir of War, in other words, is deeply relevant to our times as a painful yet beautiful reminder of the importance of remembering. As I watched it, I was reminded of the memoirist Patricia Hampl, who I once heard observe that there are two kinds of memoir, one that focuses on “how I came to be me,” and the other on bearing witness to a historical moment through the lens of personal experience. Duras’ memoir is the latter and Finkiel’s translation of it to film is every bit as moving, poetic and important as the original text.
Set in occupied Paris, Memoir of War touches on themes of collaboration and complicity, forgetting and memory, and the gap between the state’s power, in contrast to the “consequences [of its actions] to the people, taken individually,” as Finkiel has put it. Unlike many Holocaust films, Memoir of War offers a narrative centered not on those in hiding or the camps, but explores instead the experience of those waiting for their return, in all its agonizing uncertainty.
Uncertainty pervades the film, first and foremost, in the question of whether the narrator Marguerite’s (Mélanie Thierry) husband, arrested as part of the Resistance, will return from the camps, but also in highlighting the subjectivity and mutability of memory. This is a tricky balance to strike. Finkiel is deeply invested in preserving historical memory, this from his father who communicated the disturbing effect of the silence and denial about the genocide of the Jews that pervaded France after the war. Yet memoir is a literary genre that has long been bent on its own deconstruction, preoccupied with drawing attention to the unreliability of personal memory, even as it endows it with authority. It is no small achievement that Finkiel’s adaptation translates this emphasis on hyper-subjectivity into film, capturing the mood of the Duras’ fragmented memories in visual terms that feel true to the substance and style of her prose. The extensive use of voiceover passages from the text contributes to this mood, as does the use of a long focus, which creates an uncanny contrast between what is clear and blurred. So Marguerite wanders through a murky cityscape that evokes her vertigo in the face of Robert’s absence, but also the slippage of her memories.
Duras, in her narration, shifts at times from first-person to second or third, conveying her sense of an unraveling self. Second-person – which the author Junot Diaz has noted creates a “repulsive intimacy” between reader and writer, through the use of “you” – is reflected in extreme close-ups, beginning with the film’s establishing shot where Marguerite’s face fills the frame. Still more strikingly, Marguerite’s split-self manifests in certain key moments when she stands at her writing desk watching a second self apply makeup, answer the phone, or simply look out the window – a collapse of past and present, an alienation made visual, and an allusion to the act of writing all in one. Such expressionistic imagery used to convey Marguerite’s interiority is blended with more naturalistic elements – natural light, the drab wartime palette of browns, greys and muted greens, the darkened facades of buildings, true to the times, and close-ups of the Holocaust survivors Marguerite sees late in the film, who wordlessly, through their very visages, bring a dawning awakening of the depth of the horrors of the camps.
Marguerite, too, is a complex, morally ambiguous heroine. Refreshingly, she is neither perfect nor passive – her waiting is active and agitated (Thierry is riveting, showing an impressive emotional depth and range throughout). Romantically involved with her husband’s best friend Dionys (Benjamin Biolay), who is presented as indispensable to her survival, we see through him a more critical view of Marguerite’s suffering. Her refusal to eat, for one, stems from her desperation to feel close to Robert, and as such, may also be read as an expression of survivor’s guilt, though it is up to viewers whether to read it as courageous resistance or emotional indulgence.
That said, Memoir of War can feel like two different films – perhaps unsurprisingly, since Finkiel merged two sections of Duras’ memoir that read as discrete stories, rather than sequential chapters. “The War” (Part I) focuses on her agonized waiting, then nursing Robert back to life, whereas “Monsieur X, Here Called Pierre Rabier” (Part II) occurs a year earlier and recounts her involvement with a Nazi collaborator, taking the more familiar form of a suspense thriller – a riveting story, but one that differs tonally strikingly from the rest of the film.
Pasty-faced with the dark round glasses of a Nazi villain, Benoît Magimel gives a powerful performance as the collaborator Rabier, who effectively stalks Marguerite, after learning she is a famous writer and the wife of the man he arrested. Equal parts cat-and-mouse story and character study, Rabier harbors the fantasy of opening an art book store, and tells Marguerite a self-aggrandizing story about his sparing one Jewish family with a child, as though to illustrate Arendt’s thesis on the banality of evil. The suspense derives not just from the question of what Rabier will do, but of his motives. Is his obsession with Marguerite driven by a desire to arrest her, use her as an informer, or by a sexual desire intermingled with class resentment? And does Rabier truly have the power to keep Robert from being transported to a concentration camp?
The carnivalesque suffuses these scenes of the Occupation: Marguerite waits for Rabier uneasily next to children on a carousel, and later at a café, a trio of musicians are made up like tragic clowns, the violinist “sawing away,” as Duras writes. A man is denounced and beaten by a small mob on the street. This last café scene, in particular, is a tour-de-force, painting the decadence of the black-market cafés that serve butter and wine (which Marguerite characteristically refuses), while millions are systematically starved, and portraying, too, the anxiety of the occupiers and collaborators, who anticipate the approach of the Allies. Dressed in red, the color of blood and seduction, Marguerite has plotted with Resistance members, who spy from another table. The scene lasts fifteen minutes and ends with her on a bicycle riding across the grey Parisian landscape like an open wound.
When Rabier disappears as the Allies retake Paris, it’s a jolt. His absence is palpable and frankly, jarring, despite the film’s aesthetic continuity and, of course, Marguerite’s continued centrality. Finkiel himself has expressed some uneasiness about this transition: “When I was afraid that the character of Rabier would be missed in the second part, I reassured myself with the thought that ‘I have Mrs. Katz!’” he says an interview included with the press release. Well…yes and yes. Mrs. Katz doesn’t fill the void as fully as one might wish, but Shulamit Adar’s portrayal of the middle-aged friend who stays with Marguerite while awaiting the return of her Jewish, handicapped daughter works as a different kind of counterpoint to Marguerite’s agony. If Marguerite is dominated by nerves and intellect, Mrs. Katz is all heart and as such, the film’s moral center in her misguided optimism, as she mends her daughter’s clothes and repairs her shoes in preparation for a reunion that will never take place.
In keeping with Duras’ memoir, Memoir of War ends with the physical aftermath of survivors – in broken, yet still living bodies, relationships forever altered in ways large and small, their new vulnerability to the elements. Yet the imperative of acknowledging the unspeakable in the Holocaust is present, too – here the “unfilmable.” When Robert returns, the choice to conceal his body from viewers through camera angles and abstraction is both an aesthetic and ethical one, a refusal to look away balanced with a resistance to simplify, sanitize, or sentimentalize.
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera once observed, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” So, peace, for Duras, is not peace, but a threat of erasure, “like a great darkness falling, it’s the beginning of forgetting.” The impulse to gloss over past crimes in order to turn away from the horrors of the war was bound up in the desire to rewrite the history of widespread collaboration and thus vindicate France.
It’s a sad fact, then, that this film is so timely and necessary, to viewers stateside especially, in light of the surge in Holocaust denial that is of a piece with a rise in nationalism that approaches fascism. The refusal to look away, to cover up or sentimentalize our country’s past, and the moral fiber shown by those who resisted state oppression on behalf of the vulnerable and persecuted, offer models we would do well to heed now.
Elizabeth Toohey is a book critic for the Christian Science Monitor. Her essays have appeared in Film International and Terror in Global Narrative: Representations of 9/11 in the Age of Late-Late Capitalism (Palgrave, 2016). She is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY.