The original title of Memoir of War, taken from Marguerite Duras's memoir of her experiences during World War II, was La Douleur, or Pain, and it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that it fits: beginning with the almost parodically French sight of a woman smoking up a storm while gazing pensively out of a window, a thick fug of melancholy and barely suppressed despair hangs over every last one of writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel's images. The lady smoker is Marguerite Antelme (as Duras once was), and she's played by Melanie Thierry with her usual glamour dialled back to dry-lipped, underslept wanness; we join her in April 1944, looking out on - and eventually setting out to negotiate - the fraught streets of Nazi-occupied Paris as part of her search for a husband who's been disappeared by the city's occupiers. Her quest will bring her closer to two men: Dionys (Benjamin Biolay), a colleague in publishing who introduces her to the intellectual branch of the Resistance, but then starts to doubt her loyalty to the cause; and Pierre (Benoit Magimel), a midlevel functionary in the Vichy administration, who may possess information about the one man Marguerite wants to spend time with, but cloaks it in condescension and the suggestion he may well want something off-menu in return for it. By far the film's strongest suit is its evocation of Paris as a kind of limbo, emptied out of cars, colour and its usual bonhomie; in its place, we find general uncertainty and terrible choices, made all the more fearful by the realisation at least one of these forks in the road leads directly to the grave.
Purists may cavil at Finkiel's heavy reliance on first-person voiceover to establish that mood, though it's an established tactic of Dumas's own cinema, and also a choice that connects to the way the film's Parisians seem constantly to be justifying their actions, and their existence, in the face of so much that now strikes us as unjustifiable. From that first sequence - in which Thierry's Marguerite tells us about the notebook in which this account was written, and even how it was written - the film does, however, feel like a very literary proposition, despite production designer Pascal Leguellec's intriguingly spare recreation of this Paris. Some reviewers have also clearly been thrown by the (not unlifelike) way in which the narrative changes shape in the second half, as Paris is liberated and the other players in this drama recede from sight, leaving us, like Marguerite, waiting, hoping and possibly smoking. The fierceness of Thierry's stoicism prevents it from becoming the glum slog it might have been; the character's determination to hold it together, which may be essential to the survival of life during wartime, also serves to hold the film together, compelling us to give it at least a few minutes more of our attention, much as Dumas keeps extending her hopes for her husband's return. Not for the first time, one is struck by the rigour with which our Gallic chums approach the generally soft-furnished world of the period drama. We in the UK have the Downton movie awaiting us in the months ahead, of course - perhaps Julian Fellowes will surprise us, but one doubts that venture will be even a fraction as lacerating, self-critical and just plain wracked as Finkiel's achievements here.
Memoir of War is now playing in selected cinemas.