“Memoir of War” is an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s La Douleur (The Pain, published in English as The War), a 1985 semi-fictional memoir about her experiences living in Vichy France in 1945 and during the immediate post-liberation period. Her husband Robert Antelme was a member of the Resistance and a Communist like her. With Antelme a prisoner in a slave labor camp in Germany, she tries to prevent him from being transferred to an even more lethal camp like Dachau by forming ties to a Vichy collaborator who has a double agenda: to extract information about the Resistance and to seduce her. She walks a tightrope, trying to exploit her relationship with him to keep her husband alive while avoiding a Harvey Weinstein moment.
The film is among the best I have seen about living under fascism and a reminder of how great a writer Marguerite Duras was. “Memoir of War” relies on her character’s (played brilliantly by Mélanie Thierry) voiceover drawn from the text of La Douleur. I generally find such a device intrusive but in this instance it worked perfectly since the literary text meshed so well with the cinematic texture. Setting the tone for the remainder of the film, we hear Duras’s words before the credits role as she sits alone in her apartment smoking a cigarette while pacing the floor:
I found this diary in the blue cupboards at Neaulphe. I don’t remember writing it. I know I did though. I know it was me. I recognize the handwriting and the details of what happened. I can picture the place. The Gare D’Orsay. My itineraries. But not myself writing. What I found was evenly filled pages, the letters tiny, unbelievably placid and regular. What I found was a phenomenal chaos of thought and feeling that I dare not amend, besides which literary polish strikes me as shameful. One thing is sure, obvious. It is unthinkable that these words were written whilst waiting for Robert.
Of course, the claim that she didn’t “remember writing it” has to be taken with a grain of salt. To understand why she would double-reflexively write, “I don’t remember writing it”, you have to place her in the context of French postwar culture. Now obscure to most young people except maybe those who major in French literature at your better universities, Duras was among France’s leading literary figures in the 1950s. She worked in many genres, including fiction, theater, essays, and screenwriting. In 1959, she was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay for “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”, an antiwar film that relies heavily on the interior monologues of the two main characters. (This classic film can be seen here.)
Her own experimental films used the same technique according to Wikipedia. “Her films are also experimental in form; most eschew synchronized sound, using voice over to allude to, rather than tell, a story; spoken text is juxtaposed with images whose relation to what is said may be more-or-less indirect.” Director Emmanuel Finkiel, who adapted La Douleur, clearly intended to remain consistent with the aesthetic of Duras’s work that was known in the 1950s as Nouveau Roman, or new novel. The school included Alain Robbe-Grillet, the Argentinian Julio Cortázar, and Nathalie Sarraute.
If Nouveau Roman dismissed character and plot as outmoded devices, you might conclude that Duras had returned to earlier traditions since “Memoir of War” is so plot and character driven. Certainly, it would have been difficult to put these figures from the Resistance into the background since they were, like her, larger than life. Among them is François Morland, the fictional name she assigned to François Mitterand, who was the leader of the Resistance cell of writers and intellectuals she belonged to. Played by Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Morland is shocked to discover that Duras has been in a kind of strange platonic, cat-and-mouse relationship with Pierre Rabier, a French cop and Vichy collaborator.
The scenes with Rabier (Benoît Magimel) are brilliantly directed. He tries to simultaneously woo and intimidate her, not surprisingly in a manner that women must have encountered across a restaurant table (where their rendezvouses take place) from Harvey Weinstein. Perhaps the only difference between Rabier and Weinstein is ideological, with one committed to German imperialism and the other to hollowed out and just as murderous American liberal values.
Despite her terrible suffering in the absence of her husband, Duras is cheating on him with another member of the cell, Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), who fathered her only child. Before he was arrested, Antelme gave his benediction to this arrangement in what strikes me as a “free love” gesture acceptable in French leftist circles. Mascolo once said that the three “were against marriage, against normal education, against the church, against the very concept of ‘family’.” To prove that, the three lived together just as Friedrich Nietzsche, Lou Andreas-Salomé and Paul Rée planned to do. Since Mascolo was the son of poor Italian immigrants, this demonstrates the breadth and depth of radicalism in France back then.
Perhaps trying to appeal to a mainstream audience, at least that segment of it that prefers intelligent films, Finkiel does not emphasize the Communist thinking in these circles except to note that they despised De Gaulle. Mascolo and Duras both became disillusioned with the Communist Party but remained committed to the left. In his case, this meant founding a committee to support the liberation struggle in Algeria.
As for Duras, her exit from the CP was as dramatic as any of her writings, as detailed in Literary Hub’s “When Marguerite Duras Got Kicked Out of the Communist Party”. Fed up with Stalinism, she decided not to renew her party membership in 1949. A year later, after being pressured to explain why, she wrote an open letter stating: “My reasons for leaving the Party are not the same as Dionys Mascolo’s. I am under the influence of no one. I took the decision alone and long before Mascolo. Viscerally I shall always remain a communist.” The party was not content to allow her to leave so unceremoniously. It expelled her after the fact on the basis of:
(1) Attempts to sabotage the Party by disrupting the cell, with constant attacks against the branch committee through insulting and slanderous behavior, and resorting to subterfuge to conceal divergence from the Party political line.
(2) Frequenting Trotskyites, such as David Rousset, and other enemies of the working class and the Soviet Union (in particular a former attaché at the Yugoslav embassy at present chief editor of Borba).
(3) Frequenting nightclubs in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district where political, intellectual and moral corruption prevails, an activity vigorously and justifiably condemned by the working population and honest intellectuals of the arrondissement.
She replied to the charges:
One final point. I am accused of not agreeing with Party policy concerning politics and the arts. Very well, I admit that but let’s set the record straight. The Party said we had to knock on doors. I knocked on doors. The Party said we had to raise funds. I raised funds on café terraces and elsewhere. The Party asked us—as this was crucial—to take in the children of strikers. For two months I took in the daughter of a miner. I signed up housewives in the markets, I sold L’Humanité, I stuck posters, I contributed by getting Antelme, Mascolo and many more to become members, etc. Everything I could do, I did. What I can’t do is change some of my tastes in for example literature, which are what they are, and which would be physically impossible for me to give up. But since I have never shouted them from the rooftops, why are they suddenly being dug up at the last minute to be turned into my principal crime?
If this isn’t grounds to see a movie based on this extraordinary woman’s life, I don’t know what else could. It opens on August 17that the Film Forum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and at the Laemmle in L.A. a week later. Right now, it has the inside track for my nomination of best foreign-language film of 2018 and is also a good reason to begin reading an author most deserving of being rescued from obscurity.