Film Review: ‘Memoir of War’ Is a Painful Reflection on World War II

Throughout the history of cinema, war films have long been the domain of male protagonists, often focusing on their efforts in combat and the aftermath. But these films have also shown us the long-lasting and far-reaching effects of war, including the trauma afflicted on the women they leave behind. In his new film “Memoir of War,” Emmanuelle Finkiel reflects on the painful consequences for one such woman, as she excruciatingly awaits the return of her prisoner of war husband.

Adapted from the semi-autobiographical French novel “La Douleur,” the film is told from the perspective of its author Marguerite Duras, inspired by her experiences during the Nazi occupation of France. Duras is a member of the Resistance in 1944, along with her husband Robert Antelme and a few other conspirators. When we are introduced to her, however, her husband has just been captured and sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Desperate to keep and contact with him and bring him home safely, Duras decides to form a dangerous alliance with a Nazi collaborator. But despite his assurance of her husband’s safety, many months pass with no direct communication from her husband. Clinging to the last thread of hope, she endures an excruciating wait for his return as the war nears its end.

Turning the long-suffering supportive wife archetype on its head, Finkiel places “Memoir of War” squarely on the shoulders of its lead actress Mélanie Thierry. And it proves to be a heavy burden as the screenplay requires her to hold the audience’s attention through 2 hours of seemingly interminable waiting. Thankfully, Thierry rises to challenge with a perfectly judged performance. She skillfully conveys the complexities of a character who must put on a brave face while experiencing internal anguish over her loss. As she wrestles with the dark thoughts in her mind, we are treated to eloquent narration which betrays the films literary roots.

Unfortunately, “Memoir of War” doesn’t quite make a seamless translation to the screen, as its ponderous approach begins to feel slightly punishing. Indeed, it’s hard to stimulate audience enthusiasm with a protagonist who becomes increasingly apathetic towards her hopeless search. The film’s ability to keep us invested is therefore a credit to the inherent anticipation of its premise and Thierry’s quiet command of the screen.

Outside of Duras’ headspace, the world changes with the seasons and the tides of war. And “Memoir of War” captures this atmosphere in vivid detail. You can sense the pervading moods of civilians as the fear of the unknown gives way to jubilation or agony as news arrives of their loved ones. But ultimately, “Memoir of War” is the latest example of a particular brand of French cinema. Reminiscent of Oscar-submitted historical dramas like “Renoir”, it is a somewhat lifeless film saved by handsome production values and a strong central performance.

“Memoir of War” is now available on VOD.

GRADE: (★★½)