Novelist Marguerite Duras’s Hiroshima Mon Amour scenario, directed by Alain Resnais (1959), was the first French film to leave a permanent mark on my psyche. Many years later, Duras authored a semi-autobiographical story of the German occupation of Paris, La Douleur (1985) that seems to have had a similarly durable effect on director Emmanuel Finkiel. An effect he tried and – fortunately – failed to resist. “I remember telling myself: I will never dare to adapt La Douleur!” he told an interviewer.*
I saw Finkiel’s film version of La Douleur (2017) at a Paris premiere. Titled Memoir of War; the film played at prestigious U.S. cinema venues and will represent France as the country’s official submission to the 2019 Academy Awards.
In a haunting adaptation of her semi-autobiographical novel, already famous author Marguerite Duras (consummately interpreted by Mélanie Thierry) must navigate the Resistance and the Gestapo to find her imprisoned husband. His deportation to Dachau propels her into a desperate high-risk game of psychological cat and mouse with a Nazi collaborator (Benoît Magimel is beyond duplicitous). But as the months wear on without word, Marguerite must begin the process of confronting the unimaginable. Using subtly expressionistic images and voiceover passages of Duras’s writing, director Emmanuel Finkiel evokes the inner world of one of France’s most cherished contemporary writers.
To achieve the look of Paris essentially as “Marguerite saw it at the time. . . dark gray, almost black,” Finkiel said he used a long lens, backlighting and a combination of digital and other techniques. The long lens, he elaborated, offers “an unusual balance between what is blurred and what is clear, which I believe is really how we see – we perceive things in a fragmented way, and it’s our brain that pieces everything together and gives us continuity. In [this film], I really explored this . . . hyper-subjectivity.
Filming the imagery Finkiel wanted was a challenge, but he “persisted . . . also because that was the Paris of my childhood – restored Paris is rather recent.” He alludes to rue St. Benoit, in the St. Germain publishing neighborhood where Marguerite Duras worked. Dressed for her day job, her perfect chic (meticulously designed in the film) must have helped disguise her clandestine role as an active Resistance member.
Back when Paris still was ‘dark gray, almost black,’ I first wandered around St. Germain, entranced by magnificent cityscapes, repressing any sense of shadowy symbolism. In the 1980s, news of active collaboration by WWII Vichy France crept up on my Francophile mother, while the French themselves were being forced to confront their wartime government’s collaboration. My mother bitterly rejected her lifelong enthusiasm for France and French culture – an enthusiasm I’d copied; stunned, I refused to understudy this part. I hung on to my France folie.
As circumstances would have it, for at least five years, while revelations tore away at French complacency, I stuck close to my New York home base – writing about law enforcement in the city where I was born and grew up. Then, in the mid-90s, I eagerly resumed my regular visits to France; the French obsession with the dark years might be pervasive, but in my visits for the next couple of decades, I managed not to notice. Then, by the time my blindfold wore off – the French seemed about ready to move on from their less and less recent history.
A French filmmaker’s long lens probes a memoir,
revealing notes for France today
But since I’ve basically been living in Paris (since early 2017), new variations on anti-semitic themes have surfaced that once again unnerve many French figures, who speak out. . . and now I do identify. I still get my share of French culture basics, but if you’re looking for me, try the Paris Holocaust Memorial where I I’m a regular at exhibitions, discussions and films.
When Emmanuel Finkiel reflects on what occurred during the Occupation and what’s worrisome now – he has my full attention. There’s a sense today, he told interviewer Claire Vassé, that “we’re talking too much about the Holocaust. But. . . remember that during the [post-war] years, it was exactly the opposite. . . [The] government smokescreen . . . only got thicker [because of] the fact that survivors who returned [from the camps] did not talk about it.”
The official silence is implicit in Duras’s story – her husband, as a resistant, should have been incarcerated as a prisoner-of-war, Finkiel notes – but Antelme “shared the fate of the Jews.” In the Duras memoir, “the Jewish thing can be read between the lines,” but the director wanted that to be “underscored in the film.” Creatively, he drew on “what my father told me about the denial that existed in 1945 about this huge issue – the extermination of the Jews.”
Through her personal journey, Duras “recounts a collective journey,” notes Finkiel, “a highly French story, of the French among the French. . . . That’s why I repeatedly took the time to slowly pan over groups of people in the film. . . . [M]y father taught me that, in the period of a few months, people could come to think the opposite of what they seemed to think before – that the same people could praise the speeches of [Pierre] Laval, then later, those of [Charles] de Gaulle.” (Laval was Vichy France prime minister and chief collaborator; General de Gaulle, France’s WWII Liberation hero, was elected post-war president.)
Once you look through the lens of Finkiel’s experience, you can’t look away: “The most horrible thing when you make a film about the Occupation . . . is to realize that [hateful echoes] from those years can be heard again today, particularly in speeches of [far right politician Marine] Le Pen.
No, French voters didn’t buy LePen’s nasty message in 2017 – but these still are the proverbial interesting times to take up life in France. For me, Memoir of War shows art and life today as inextricable, and Emmanuel Finkiel as a cinematic artist to keep your eye on indefinitely.
[*First of various quotations from a Finkiel interview by writer and film critic Claire Vassé, in a translation kindly provided by Music Box Films – but subjected to some editorial liberties, for which I take sole responsibility and beg everyone’s indulgence.]