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“Memoir of War” builds slowly – soooo slowly – to a wrenching, ragged, emotionally devastating scene in which the actress Melanie Thierry nearly rips the screen apart. It is a wondrously horrible moment: rich, resonant, emotionally chaotic and powerfully real.

But boy, getting there.

There is no actual war in “Memoir of War,” just echoes of its effects and aftershocks. Thierry plays the real-life writer Marguerite Duras living in Paris in 1944-1945. Her husband, Robert (a barely seen Emmanuel Bourdieu) has just been arrested as a member of the resistance. She is trying to get clothes to him when she's introduced to Pierre Rabier (Benoit Magimel), a Frenchman working for the Nazis.

For the first half of the film Marguerite and Pierre toy with one another; he obviously wants to seduce her and get some info about the resistance, she wants to know how her husband's doing. They meet at cafes, wine is poured, cryptic exchanges lead nowhere. This is all supposed to be tense, but it's mostly repetitious.

Meanwhile, Marguerite keeps hanging out with other members of the resistance, whose chief method of fighting back seems to involve smoking lots of cigarettes and dressing stylishly. One wonders if the French have won many wars this way.

Then Paris is liberated, Pierre disappears and Marguerite spends the second half of the film wondering where Robert is. Wondering how life can be so cruel. Wondering if meaning exists. If it's painful, Marguerite wonders about it.

A great deal of “Memoir of War,” directed by Emmanuel Finkiel, could easily be seen as a spoof of French art films, all angst and wandering dank streets, fuzzy photography and bleak lighting. At one point Marguerite, sitting in her living room, wonders “What is this place?” via an inner monologue, addressing the big question about This Place. You want to throw water in her face and say it's your living room, snap out of it!

There is no snapping out of it in “Memoir of War,” though, and the drumbeat of existential anguish becomes almost laughable until it suddenly isn't and Thierry explodes. It's an unforgettable moment, but the drone that precedes it is too long, insistent and cliched. Pain, it turns out, can be unbearably dull.

 

“Memoir of War”

GRADE: C

Not rated

Running time: 127 minutes

 

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