Reviews

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Michael S. Smith

In Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais and his screenwriter, French novelist Marguerite Duras, show their debts to the Modernists.


Hiroshima Mon Amour

Director: Alain Resnais
Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Argos Films
First date: 1959, 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2003-06-24
Resnais is a cubist. I mean that he is the first modern filmmaker of the sound film.
-- Eric Rohmer

You can describe Hiroshima as Faulkner plus Stravinsky.
-- Jean-Luc Godard

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.
-- Pierre Kast

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.

* * * *

(1) Susan Sontag, "Resnais' Muriel" (1963), in Against Interpretation (New York: Doubleday 1986), 236.

(2) Ibid., 238.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image