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‘Memoir of War’ Director on Making the Act of Waiting for Loved Ones Watchable

”Without the proof of a body, there are so many possibilities that all you can do is wait,“ director Emmanuel Finkiel tells TheWrap

Waiting for an object of desire can be a test of mental strength. But waiting for something that has no arrival date can be much more than that. It can be a roller coaster ride of intense emotions. For French director Emmanuel Finkiel, not only did he want to tell a story about waiting, but he wanted to do it in a way that took audiences on that roller coaster ride every inch of track along the way.

“It’s a certain kind of waiting, a madness,” Finkiel told TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman at a Q&A on Tuesday, following a screening of his film “Memoir of War,” France’s entry into the Oscar foreign film race, based on the semi-biographical novel by famed French novelist Marguerite Duras.

Set in 1944 Nazi-occupied France, “Memoir of War” takes the audience into the spiraling mind of Duras, played by actress Melanie Thierry. Duras and her husband Robert Antelme are a part of the Resistance against Germany. When Antelme is captured by Nazi troops, Duras must endure an excruciating battle of wit and patience for the chance to see her husband again.

Actor Benoît Magimel plays the role of the French Gestapo agent who helps Duras find Robert, Pierre Rabier.

Finkiel told the audience at Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles his personal connection to the film’s story attracted him to the project. Finkiel’s own father recounted a time when he waited for his parents to come home during the war, a story that included the kind of inner warfare that takes place while wondering whether they are alive or dead.

“Without the proof of a body, there are so many possibilities that all you can do is wait,” Finkiel said.

They would not return. But this stark reality during an uncertain time would later become the backdrop for “Memoir of War.”

In order to capture that desperation, the “Memoir of War” cinematography focused on Duras and her facial expressions as much as possible, using close-ups and playing with the camera’s focus to illustrate Duras’ lack of clarity about the situation.

Duras’ monologues, through voiceover, also illustrate a level of instability with her state of mind as the movie progresses. During one sequence, she toys with the idea that Robert has already been shot or starved by the Nazis weeks prior. Her mind jumps to various conclusions, even accusing her friend Dionys (played by Benjamin Biolay) of hiding the truth from her. Duras even begins to experience physical withdrawal due to the lack of closure.

For the role of Duras, Finkiel had to find someone who could not just play the part, but exist in the role as if she was experiencing the trauma herself. Finkiel said he initially believed Thierry would not be a good fit to play Duras, but during an audition where she made Thierry sit and wait, Finkiel realized she could do so in a way that, simply put, wasn’t boring.

And despite the story being based on an author many in France know and love, “Memoir of War” is intended to to stand on its own if you know of her or not. Thierry attributes “finding [Marguerite’s] humanity” and not worrying about living up to her legacy as a reason why audiences can still connect to the lead character.

“I just wanted to pay tribute to the music that is her writing,” Thierry told the audience.