Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Alain Resnais | 1hr 32min

Three years on from his landmark Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, Alain Resnais was posed a new challenge – to recreate a similar historical depiction of Hiroshima’s bombing. His inspiration to turn it into the narrative film Hiroshima Mon Amour wasn’t just driven by his reluctance to tread familiar ground though. His recognition of the impossibility to accurately portray such profound human suffering would also drive this decision.

The opening fifteen minutes of contradictions is an absolute refute of those who would suggest otherwise. Close-ups of arms and bodies locked in a romantic embrace weave images of pleasure into the raw pain of newsreels, re-enactments, and surviving artefacts, as observed by Emmanuelle Riva’s unnamed ‘Elle’ (Her).

“I saw the people walking around. The people walk around, lost in thought, among the photographs, the reconstructions, for want of something else, among the photographs, the photographs, the reconstructions, for want of something else, the explanations, for want of something else. Four times at the museum of Hiroshima.”

For all of her observations though, Eiji Okada’s ‘Lui’ (Him) only ever provides the same variation on a single response.

“You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.”

A beautifully hypnotic and magical realist opening, returning to these images of nuclear ash settling over a lover’s embrace.

Nuclear ash falls on their naked bodies, smothering their love with echoes of past traumas, and yet they remain inexplicably divided over the details of those memories. Elle believes she has seen Hiroshima’s suffering, in much the same way we might think we have grasped the Holocaust through Resnais’ documentary, but she has not seen it in the same way as Him who lost his family to the tragedy. The combination of dolly shots rolling down hospital hallways, museum exhibitions, and through historical sites with the repetitive voiceover calls to mind similar scenes in both Night and Fog and Last Year at Marienbad, summoning us into a dreamlike reverie where words matter less than the rhythms they inspire. Montages like these are where Resnais is most comfortable, prompting melancholy considerations of what it means to truly “see” Hiroshima rather than making any misguided attempt to understand its horror.

A remarkable similar opening to scenes from Night and Fog (three years earlier) and Last Year at Marienbad (two years later). Voiceovers echo repetitive phrases in a mesmerising reverie, as the camera dollies through remnants of Hiroshima’s historical trauma.

This is a film of intersections – past and present, France and Japan, man and woman, conflicting sides of one war. An early shot of two wristwatches laid over each other clues us into this meeting of timelines. Over a decade has passed since the bombing of Hiroshima, and now Elle has arrived in the city to act in an antiwar film being shot there. The city is still marked by tragedy, but its people recognise the need to keep moving on. Lui stands among them, as much a personification of Hiroshima as she is of her own small French village, Nevers. “Hiroshima. That’s your name,” she tells him. “And your name is Nevers. Nevers in France,” he responds.

A criss-cross of watches, forming an icon of crossed timelines.

It isn’t unusual for Resnais to infuse his wistful allegories with such elusive subtlety, though it is tough to imagine how this magnificently cryptic film would have looked without Marguerite Duras’ poetic screenplay. At this point in her career, she was primarily a novelist, making Hiroshima Mon Amour her foray into the world of cinema. Her dialogue flows lyrically in conversations and voiceovers, pondering the sensitive memories which have come to define both Elle and Lui, but there is also extraordinary formal ambition in her to-and-fro flashbacks.

Hiroshima as we know it in the film exists in the present, separate from history. By shooting on location, Resnais captures the spark of life which has returned to its restless urban landscapes, piercing the dark sky with flickering city lights and imposing magnificent pieces of architecture on our characters’ pensive wandering. There is an implicit aversion to the cold stillness of death in Elle’s love of this vitality, expressing her admiration for “Cities where there’s always someone awake, day or night.” In blinding contrast, Resnais’ representation of her home back in Nevers is tarnished with memories of torture and grief. Her hope for the future died along with the German soldier she fell in love with during Nazi occupation, and unlike Lui, she is still trapped in her past.

A composition of faces in close-up worthy of comparison to Ingmar Bergman, and Resnais even keeps his backgrounds dynamic with the flashing lights of the city.
The scenes of Elle’s past in Nevers are filled with tragedy of a different kind – the death of both love and freedom.

As such, a paradox forms in Hiroshima Mon Amour. With these separate historical periods occupying the same space, time ceases to exist. Long dissolves frequently erase the years that divide one scene from the next, and as Elle walks the streets in one scene with Resnais’ dollying camera angled up at the surrounding buildings, he alternates between images of Hiroshima at night and Nevers in the day. All through this film, he is formally dedicated to studying this surprising proximity between such distant settings. Even while both exist thousands of kilometres apart, each are scarred by war in their own unfortunate ways.

An incredibly inspired montage moving through the streets of Nevers in the daytime, and Hiroshima at night – two settings occupying a single point in time and space.

Perhaps this is why Elle believes she can comprehend Hiroshima’s tragedy on some level. Even after being told it is an impossible task for those who weren’t there, she nonetheless continues trying to draw a connection, using her brief affair with Lui to relive her past relationship with the German soldier. Simply the way he twitches his hand in his sleep becomes a catalyst for reminiscence, launching her into a nostalgic rumination over her dead lover’s final moments.

Although Okada brings a poignant warmth to his part as Lui, it is Riva who commands the screen with her expressive face, constantly reliving events that are invisible to everyone but her. All around her though, Japan continues to strive forward. Even the accommodation where she is staying, Hotel New Hiroshima, stands as a testament to those efforts, forming ravishing modern backdrops to Elle and Lui’s fleeting romance. Some experiences of history are simply irreconcilable, despite their similarities. For all the devastation that the bombing of Hiroshoma wreaked on its citizens, the fateful event meant something very different for all those living in France.

“The end of the war.”

The modern architecture of Hiroshima defines it as a city moving from the present into the future, allowing for some beautiful compositions of rigid lines and angles.

The division between everything these two lovers represent is as simple as that. Just as these lives, cities, and eras have intersected at a specific point in time, they will also inevitably be ripped apart, set back on their own distinct paths. Resnais may spend time considering those tragedies which he never experienced firsthand in Hiroshima Mon Amour, but he realises that to try and evoke empathy through explicit artistic depiction would be futile. Cinema is a medium uniquely suited to the psychological study of time and subjectivity, and by narrowing such broad concepts down to a single catastrophe that echoed across nations and decades, he keeps digging deeper into the compounded layers of its mournful, enduring legacy.

Hiroshima Mon Amour is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.


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