“La douleur,” Marguerite Duras’ ruminative quasi-memoir of her life in Paris under German occupation and in the aftermath of liberation, is not the sort of literary work that invites screen adaptation. And though writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel has made a valiant effort, “Memoir of War,” as his film has been titled for American release, is dedicated and respectful but rather chilly and remote—except for one subplot that conveys the emotion the basic narrative lacks.
Finkiel’s film falls into two parts. The first of the two hours is devoted to 1944-1945, when Duras (Mélanie Thierry) becomes involved with Rabier (Benoît Magimel), a collaborationist French cop whom she meets while trying to get information about the whereabouts of her husband Robert, a resistance leader who is now captive somewhere in the camps. Rabier, a tough guy who is fascinated by Duras’ status as a writer and an intellectual, and who dreams of running a bookstore after the Germans win the war, promises her news about Robert while attempting to pry details from her about the ring to which her husband belonged. (The leader of the group, who went by the name François Morland, was actually François Mitterand, played here by Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet.)
The two play a cat-and-mouse game in meetings in bars and restaurants even though Duras’ resistance colleagues, most notably worried Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), who is closest to her, expresses concerns about the danger. As it happens Rabier will toss a few crumbs of information—and an opportunity for her to catch a brief glimpse of Robert during a prisoner transport—to Duras, but get little in return except the occasional pleasure of her company, though she makes little effort to stroke his ego.
Their last lunch occurs just as Paris is falling to the Allies and Rabier scurries offstage, never to be seen again; and the second half of the story takes over, with a subdued, somber Duras solemnly awaiting the possible return of Robert as former prisoners return to the capital from the camps. There are occasional rumors to the effect that he has been seen alive, but nothing is certain; and Duras walks about the city in a daze, ruminating on how the Gaullists are taking charge even as the poor and dispossessed continue to suffer.
Among the most incisive threads in this section of the film is the arrival of Mrs. Katz (Shulamit Adar), an elderly, sad-faced Jewish widow who has come to Paris from Lyon, hoping that among the returnees will be her handicapped daughter, who had been taken off to the camps some time ago. She accepts Duras’ invitation to stay with her until she gets definitive word about the girl, and in a few brief scenes expresses the desolation—the pain of the original title of Duras’ work—to a degree that, to be frank, the larger story fails to capture. Even a scene in which Duras questions two emaciated prisoners recently returned from Buchenwald about Robert is so stiffly choreographed that it doesn’t carry the weight one would expect.
After sinking deeper and deeper into depression, Duras receives word from Dionys that Robert is in fact alive, and has returned to Paris. We glimpse him only briefly in the film’s final scenes (played by Emmanuel Bourdieu), and his return brings one of the film’s greatest surprises, at least for those unfamiliar with Duras’ life and writings.
One thing that Finkiel, working with cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine, production designer Pascal Leguellec, costumer Anais Romand, editor Sylvie Lager and composer Nicolas Becker, imbues his film with is a pictorial representation of desperation and near-despair. The images are largely drained of color—except when a bright red dress suddenly appears–and clouded by mist and dust. And the motions are slow and somber; even when planes appear in the sky, they seem to be flying at half-speed. And the chronological connections are hazy; things tend to run together or fall apart without much concern for order.
That kind of malaise affects Thierry’s performance as well: she’s certainly convincingly dour, but doesn’t evince much beyond mild discomfort as she wanders about the city, or plods through her apartment, reciting in voiceover reams of ruminations taken from the book, which often morph without any distinction into actual dialogue. She may be a fine actress, but in this case the performance is one-note. The same characterization applies to virtually all the cast, with only Adar sticking in the memory.
One has to admire the ambition that led Finkiel, obviously a devotee, to take on the herculean task of adapting “La douleur” for the screen. “Memoir of War,” however, joins such films as Joseph Strick’s “Ulysses” and Raoul Ruiz’s “Time Regained” as a labor of love that might simply have been misguided. Some works of literature might just be unsuitable for cinematic treatment, at least of a reasonably conventional sort, and Duras’ magnum opus could be one of them.