Resnais is a cubist. I mean that he is the first modern filmmaker of the sound film.
You can describe Hiroshima as Faulkner plus Stravinsky.
We’ve already seen a lot of films that parallel the novel’s rules of construction. Hiroshima goes further. We are at the very core of a reflection on the narrative form itself.
In July 1959, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Pierre Kast, and other members of the editorial board of Cahiers du Cinema convened a roundtable on Hiroshima Mon Amour. Godard called it the first film without any cinematic references; Jacques Rivette said its rupturing of rhythm likened it to contemporary classical music; all members agreed on its status as a cinematic watershed. With his first feature, Alain Resnais created the thing they had all been looking for: a truly “modern” film. Fortunately, this illuminating discussion is included with Criterion’s new high-definition transfer DVD.
In Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais and his screenwriter, French novelist Marguerite Duras, show their debts to the Modernists, to Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, philosopher Henri Bergson, and a group of contemporary experimental French writers (one of whom, Alain Robbe-Grillet, wrote the screenplay for Resnais’s equally groundbreaking film L’Année dernière à Marienbad). In place of linear narrative and clear denouements, these writers employed stream of consciousness, subjectivity, and “affective” or “lived” time, the sense of experience through memory as opposed to the “artificial” time of calendars.
In joining these elements into a visual composition, Hiroshima Mon Amour stands outside the French New Wave, which mostly reworked cinematic conventions. Hiroshima Mon Amour goes much further. It is a cinema, as Susan Sontag writes, of “the inexpressible” (1).
The film’s celebrated opening montage introduces this idea in its selection of dissimilar images: snowy ashes of nuclear fallout, the glint of sweat on embracing lovers, disfigured victims of the Hiroshima bombing, and public spaces in the newly rebuilt city. Gradually, the voice-over of an anonymous French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) provides a loose cohesion. These are her memories, recalled for her anonymous Japanese lover (Eiji Okada), who tells her that she “saw nothing of Hiroshima,” because she was not there when the bomb fell. She is trying desperately to understand, however. “I longed for a memory beyond consolation,” she says, “a memory of shadows and stone.”
While in Hiroshima to act in a film “about peace,” she meets the Japanese man shortly before she is to return to Paris. She assumes their illicit rendezvous (they are both married) is for one night, but he pleads with her to meet again. When they do, she begins to tell him about her youth in Nevers, France and the German lover she had during the war, who was shot and died in her arms. Because he was an enemy soldier, she was ostracized by her parents, humiliated by having her head shaved, being paraded in public, then locked in a cellar. She fled to Paris just before the bombing of Hiroshima.
The recollection jolts her. Wandering the city streets in the early morning hours, she wonders if she should return to France or stay with her new lover. She longs for a memory of Hiroshima, hoping to bury her own past by empathizing with the greater suffering of countless victims. But her visit to Hiroshima and brief affair only amplify her sorrow.
In tracing her emotional devastation, Hiroshima Mon Amour is less about memory itself, more about the burdensome act of remembering. As Sontag says, “The memory of an unrecapturable feeling becomes the subject of feeling” (2).
In this act, the past is the present. During their talk in a riverside café, the Japanese lover “becomes” the German lover: “When you’re in the cellar, am I dead?” he asks. “You’re dead,” she replies. “What did you scream?” he asks. “Your German name,” she tells him. Images of her staring into her new lover’s eyes are intercut with scenery of Nevers, with the German lover dying on the street, and with her in the cellar, screaming.
What seem to be flashbacks here are not flashbacks at all. In the film’s most haunting, and hauntingly beautiful, moment, the woman walks the streets of Hiroshima at night, looking up at building façades, street lights, and neon signs; slow tracking shots mix these images with the streets, buildings, and signs of Nevers. In her consciousness, time and space are poetically fused, one place coexisting with (and as) the other.
The Cahiers board admired just this sort of formal experimentation, and with good reason; Resnais’s techniques are fundamentally innovative. But the movie’s modernity derives from its representation of a specific fragmentation and anguish, central to the post-War moment. Resnais originally conceived of the film as a documentary about the atomic bomb’s destruction of Hiroshima, as he explains in an interview on the DVD, believing that cinema had failed to address the horrors of World War II. Even as fiction, Hiroshima Mon Amour maintains this interest in history, as well as an anti-nuclear, pacifist theme.
Appropriately, the Japanese man embodies this theme. He reveals to the woman that, when the bomb fell, he was away fighting. His family, however, was in Hiroshima, and now he must live with his survivor’s guilt. His sorrow manifests in an erotic longing that hopelessly, endlessly remains unfulfilled.
Hiroshima, too, cannot fully exorcise its horrors. The city rises, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of nuclear destruction, rebuilt in a thoroughly angular, modern architectural style as a tourist destination. The film shows citizens seemingly at peace alongside the Ota River, yet their awful past is constantly present. As seen through recurring images, the A-Dome, over which the atomic bomb exploded some 2,000 feet in the air, stands as a symbol of their inhuman suffering.
As important as the lover and the city are, the French woman provides the film its most overt modernist theme: human isolation. She recognizes the necessity of confronting her own history in order to purge her sadness, but abandoning the past is equally horrible. In her hotel room, staring in the mirror, she says to her dead lover, “I cheated on you tonight with that stranger. Look how I am forgetting you.” This sense of guilt and regret keeps her from realizing any sustained emotional and physical satisfaction.
Hiroshima Mon Amour therefore finds its tonic note in two people hopelessly separated, not by their marital status or culture, but by the burden of their memories.
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(1) Susan Sontag, “Resnais’ Muriel” (1963), in Against Interpretation (New York: Doubleday 1986), 236.
(2) Ibid., 238.