French actress stars in the Holocaust drama 'Memory of Pain'

French acctress, Melanie Thierry stars as Marguerite Duras in 'Memoir of Pain.'

October 21, 2017 21:20
3 minute read.
MELANIE THIERRY portrays French literary icon Marguerite Duras in ‘Memoir of Pain.’

MELANIE THIERRY portrays French literary icon Marguerite Duras in ‘Memoir of Pain.’. (photo credit: COURTESY HAIFA FILM FESTIVAL)

"I wanted to ease myself into the rhythm of playing Marguerite Duras,” say Melanie Thierry, the star of Emmanuel Finkiel’s Memoir of Pain, which is based on a Duras novel and was screened at the recent Haifa International Film Festival, in the presence of Thierry and Finkiel.

The film and the autobiographical novel on which it was based chronicle the ordeal Duras suffered after her Resistance leader husband, Robert Antelme, was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

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“It was not an impression. I wanted to express who she was. Her thoughts were a mess, she was a modern woman, very modern,” says Thierry, who has starred in such films as Fernando León de Aranoa’s A Perfect Day, Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier and Denys Arcand’s An Eye for Beauty. She started her career as a teenager and quickly worked her way up to leading roles. In 2009, she won a Cesar Award for Most Promising Actress for her performance in Philippe Godeau’s One for the Road.

Although Duras was one of the leading figures in 20th century French literature, Thierry said she did not find it intimidating to portray her.

“She wasn’t well known” during the period covered by the film. The leading light of the French literary world, an iconic figure often photographed in glasses, was just starting out. But even in the early Forties, when she was still known as Marguerite Donnadieu (Duras was a pen name she used later), she had “a strong presence,” and Thierry channeled such French screen goddesses as Delphine Seyrig and Jeanne Moreau to portray her.

“I was inspired by Duras movies as well,” says Thierry. Although Duras is primarily known as a writer of literary fiction, she has 67 movie writing credits to her name. Some of these are for movies based on her novels, such as the 1992 sexy arthouse hit The Lover. Other films, such as Tony Richardson’s Moderato Cantabile starring Moreau and Jean-Paul Belmondo, were based on her work, but she also wrote the screenplays. Occasionally, she wrote original screenplays, such as Alan Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. The writer also directed a number of movies.

Although she was not as famous as she later became, her writing already had the power to impress and the film shows how a powerful Nazi collaborator, star-struck by meeting a writer he admired, played a flirtatious game of cat-and-mouse with her.

“She recognizes his attraction, and she uses it to try to help her husband,” says Thierry. It’s a tense, emotional film, all the more so because it was based on a true story. But Thierry said it wasn’t difficult to live these emotions during the day and to come to her partner, musician Raphael Haroche, and their two children, at night.

“Although the movie was about pain, filming it was a very happy experience,” she says. She particularly enjoyed collaborating with Finkiel, with whom she worked before on the 2015 film, A Decent Man.

“I’m full of admiration and respect for the director,” she says. “He gets his actors to give their best performances, he elevates us. He works from a place of strength and depth. But he’s very tender with his actors and that gives us confidence.”

Confidence was also apparent when Thierry spoke about the actresses who have influenced her. First of all, she mentions Gena Rowlands, particularly the naturalistic work she did for her husband, John Cassavetes, in such emotionally wrenching dramas as A Woman Under the Influence. “It’s impossible not to take her into account,” when working on a new role, says Thierry. She also counts such movie stars as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn among her inspirations.

But it’s Marguerite Duras who was still very much on her mind as she sat in the garden behind the Haifa Cinematheque. Yael Fogiel, one of the producers of Memoir of Pain, said that Thierry very much lived the part during the film. “When I called Melanie, she would answer the phone like Duras.”

Thierry smiled, hearing this anecdote. “It was hard to leave this character,” she said.

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