Set in 1944 Paris, “Memoir of War” resonates now

Mem of War posterNovelist 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, and now, titled Memoir of War, New Yorkers can have the READ MORE 

same stimulating experience at the perennially phenomenal, recently refurbished and enlarged Film Forum venue. 


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.]  

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Hear author Gérôme Truc on Shell-shocked: The Social Response to Terrorist Attacks

Author / sociologist Gérôme Truc dissects our response to terrorist attacks.

Author / sociologist Gérôme Truc dissects our response to terrorist attacks.

Whenever they occur, terrorist attacks elicit expressions of grief and solidarity from millions of people around the world. Why do so many feel intimately connected to events they may not have experienced personally?

Sociologist Gérôme Truc draws from his field work in cities targeted by terrorism to better understand the impact of terrorism on contemporary societies.

Gérôme Truc is a tenured research fellow at the CNRS and Member of the Institut des Sciences sociales du Politique. He teaches at the École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay. Truc’s work focuses primarily on social reactions to terrorist attacks with particular attention to moral and political sociology. He also wrote, Assumer l’humanité. Hannah Arendt: la responsabilité face à la pluralité (Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2008

Shell Shocked movie poster

Break-through book: Shell Shocked explains contemporary societies’ response to the impact of terrorism.

“Je suis Charlie.” Revisiting how ordinary individuals lived through, and responded to, the attacks of 9/11, of 11 March 2004 in Madrid and 7 July 2005 in London, the author of Shell-shocked sheds new light on these events. Analyzing the political language and the media images — the demonstrations of solidarity and the minutes of silence, as well as the tens of thousands of messages addressed to the victims — Truc reveals the vast ambiguity of our feelings about the Islamist attacks. And he brings out the sources of the solidarity that, in our individualistic societies, finds expression in the first person singular, rather than the first person plural: ‘I am Charlie’, ‘I am Paris.’

Like many who lived through one of these cataclysms, I remain residually shell shocked, and drawn to the subject. If that’s how you feel, hear and question a sociologist who’s studied the subject in new depth.  Details?  Link via the red Calendar button below….

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Rendezvous NYC Calendar

In NYC, ‘Je suis Charlie’ solidarity with France — Beryl Goldberg photographs for GallicFever

10 JANUARY 2015. A day before millions mobilized in France for Je suis Charlie solidarity, hundreds assembled in New York City’s Washington Square Park to let France know we support freedom of expression from Paris to Timbuctu — and everywhere else. Without fear of being silenced by late-model weapons in the hands of terrorists.

The form of free expression chosen by one New Yorker in the park was dance . . . pole dance. As leather-clad Carolyn Chui slowly waved a Je suis Charlie placard from high above the crowd, onlookers smiled.”Only in New York,” commented Lamia, who’s from France via Algeria.

Carolyn danced to music of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, played by Colin Huggins on a grand piano. Especially haunting to my ear was Colin’s rendering of Yann Tierson’s, “Contine d’un autre été.” Tierson wrote his ‘little story of another summer’ — as I later learned, for  the movie, Amélie.” That frigid January Saturday [scroll down. . .]

Editor’s note: Play slide show, read captions and click comment link — just move your mouse over the photo mosaic.

was not the first time Colin played Chopin in the Greenwich Village venue, nor will it likely be the last. Where does he garage his grand piano? Wait for warmer weather, stop by the arch in Washington Square Park. . . and maybe he’ll tell you.

Colin’s fingers surely were ready to freeze — as were mine, and GallicFever photographer’s Beryl Goldberg’s. Beryl has photographed West African dance on location, but outdoor pole dance in New York was a first. For me, a chance to stand with the French couldn’t have been more welcome, once I discovered the Je suis Charlie invitation on the New York in French forum. French Institute Alliance France (FIAF), organized the bittersweet moment of Franco-U.S. solidarity.

Beryl and I had planned a second stop that Saturday afternoon: Albertine bookstore, uptown on Fifth Avenue. We’d long wanted to take some photos of my fave Franco-American cultural hotspot, but first we decided to warm up over hot chocolate at the Eighth Street branch of Vive la Crêpe. We thoroughly enjoyed the pleasant warmth of the shop, the French posters and our fresh fruit-filled crêpe. Tasty, and totally French — right? Only the former, since it’s a Mexican chain that opened their first Vive la Crêpe in Manhattan about five years ago.

At Albertine, I scoop up my budget-priced Folio paperback of Le Père Goriot, the Balzac novel we’ll read in the FIAF class I’m taking this semester. Meanwhile, Beryl has been shooting. We sit down in the shop’s upper level reading room and chose perfect photos of la belle Albertine, where the flower of French literature is shelved in both French and English editions. And where, every week, fascinating Franco-American cultural events inevitably attract full complements of my brothers and sisters in francofolie.