“Words don’t describe what eyes have seen,” we’re told in “Memoir of Pain,” esteemed French writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel’s notably ambitious interpretation of Marguerite Duras’s autobiographical novel “The War: A Memoir.” It’s perhaps an unexpected line to hear in a literary adaptation that remains in thrall to its imposing source text throughout, which is not to say that the camera doesn’t try some tricky visual articulation of its own. Several impressionistic, shadow-boxing passages of reverie punctuate the more straightforward storytelling in this account of a young French Resistance writer’s agonized wait for her husband to return from Nazi capture: Large as its historical canvas is, the film is most artful as an interior evocation of a preemptively grieving state of mind. If, at over two hours, it is an undeniably onerous watch, that is by design: Finkiel’s film certainly understands the taxing nature of sorrow.
Published in 1985, though drawn from diaries written over 40 years before, “The War: A Memoir” is a form-blurring work that addressed Duras’s emotionally exhausting World War II experience through the thinnest of fictional filters. The harrowing uncertainty of her separation from then-husband Robert Antelme — detained and sent to Dachau concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of France for his involvement in the Resistance — may have been its throughline, but the book skitters restlessly to more generalized meditations on the nature of war, heroism and the shared burden of the Holocaust on its surviving victims and perpetrators alike. In France, it carries the more evocative title “La Douleur” (directly translated as “pain”), as does Finkiel’s film, though one questions the wisdom of retitling it “Memoir of Pain” for English-language viewers: Commercially unenticing on its own terms, the new moniker also risks escaping the notice of the book’s acolytes.
For it is Duras devotees who remain the principal audience for the film — like all Finkiel’s work to date, a more secure prospect domestically than abroad, though international distribution should follow in due course. Much of her distinctively poetic literary tone survives into Finkiel’s narration-heavy screenplay and Mélanie Thierry’s intensely contained lead performance, even if some of the book’s more controversial theoretical musings (in particular, her conception of the Holocaust as “a crime committed by everyone”) have been tempered. Perhaps the film’s most formidable feat as an adaptation is a double-edged one. While taking on only a portion of the book, “Memoir of Pain” intelligently approximates its difficult, shifting structure, in which senses of time, place and character are frequently clouded — while making it clear why others had hitherto resisted filming a work primarily about the dramatic and spiritual lacunae of waiting.
Finkiel has primarily built his film from two of “The War: A Memoir’s” six parts. In the first, set in the final weeks of the German occupation, the intrepid Marguerite embarks on a fraught, queasily flirtatious relationship with Nazi collaborator Rabier (Benoit Magimel), agreeing to a series of covert meetings in exchange for information about her deported husband’s whereabouts. In the second, set immediately after the Liberation of Paris, the increasingly withdrawn Marguerite waits for her morally compromising efforts to bear fruit, Antelme’s survival seeming an ever more remote possibility as scores of the formerly imprisoned return to Paris without him.
Finkiel subtly muddles the timeline between these two stages, underscoring the alienating effects of loneliness and mourning on the young writer, though they’re otherwise distinct in tone and focus. The pre-Liberation story centers on the righteous group dynamic of the Resistance, as Marguerite’s risky association with Rabier is debated, aided and closely monitored by her fellow fighters, led by smoldering firebrand Dionys (Benjamin Biolay), who would later father Duras’s child. Finkiel and cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine trade in the elegant smoke-and-mirrors imagery of many a wartime thriller, though there’s a knowing hint of futility to the film’s genre machinations. When the Occupation ends, the comforting distractions of conspiracy and plot drain away, leaving Marguerite largely alone with her thoughts and ravaged feelings.
It is through this purgatorial period of unconfirmed loss that “Memoir of Pain” proves most austerely challenging, as Finkiel finds abstruse cinematic language to convey Marguerite’s inner torment. Hazy, looping editing distorts our sense of time as the images are swamped in half-waking shadow, our heroine’s face sometimes caught as if through a dust-clogged kaleidoscope. The sound design, too, is intentionally disorienting, with Marguerite’s internal monologues sometimes indistinguishable from her dialogue — aptly placing her in limbo between her mind and the outside world as she roams the streets, a sore thumb of anguish amid the surrounding jubilation of the newly free City of Lights.
Through this thick psychological fog, Finkiel pulls stray moments of acute emotional clarity: Shulamit Adar contributes the film’s most piercing performance as an elderly woman lodging with Marguerite during the most uncertain stages, waiting in what increasingly seems like vain for her daughter to return from the camps. Her open-hearted devastation plays in stark contrast to Thierry’s more fiercely guarded performance, though both women emerge as different sides of the same callously tossed coin: “Memoir of Pain” may be an opaquely personal diary of suffering, but it’s finally a communal film, serving Duras’s conviction that the Holocaust belongs to all.