Hiroshima mon amour
Directed by Alain Resnais
Written by Marguerite Duras
Hiroshima mon amour was the first feature film of director Alain Resnais, whose only previous work had been a few short films. Most notably, Resnais had debuted Night and Fog at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. The film was a documentary about Nazi concentration camps and was the direct catalyst to his involvement with Hiroshima mon amour. Resnais was approached to make a documentary about the atomic bomb. Wary of repeating his previous work, Resnais teamed with Marguerite Duras to create a wholly innovative fiction film that encapsulated Resnais’ struggles in making a film about the atomic bomb and the impossibility of coming to terms with such horrific events.
The film concerns a series of conversations, or one extended conversation, over a 36-hour period between a French actress only credited as She (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect, He (Eiji Okada). Beginning with images of the devastating effects of the A-bomb, these characters are only heard in voiceover discussing the extreme pain of the victims and the unfathomable destruction of Hiroshima in a languid, near-poetic style. This segment continues for 15 minutes, their exchange accompanying images of malformed bodies, mass graves, and flattened structures. As these protagonists move to the forefront of the plot, it is clear that they are having an affair. Only hours away from her departure, She and He entwine their bodies, a bulwark against the inevitable end of their relationship.
Even in Hiroshima mon amour’s avant-garde story of love and remorse, Resnais offers us a distinct point of reference to the familiar ruminations on human relationships in the form of a reference to Casablanca. On the eve of her departure, She meets her Japanese lover in a café. Resnais gives us a rare establishing shot of the location: The Casablanca. For all its surreal imagery, its unconventional love story, and nonlinear storyline, this allusion shows that Hiroshima mon amour is still the classic “same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.” She and He are just two people struggling with the imagery of a distant war and the fate of their own relationship.
Resnais makes use of highly innovative techniques throughout Hiroshima mon amour. His interruption of scenes with miniature flashbacks effectively conveys brief flashes of memory. This is key to our knowledge of She’s past in Nevers and her experience of loss. Even in her blissful affair with He, She still thinks of her first love, German soldier. Effects like this only bring us closer to understanding his protagonists inside and out. The film also uses highly structured and repetitive dialogue, mostly in She’s narration, with He interjecting to say she is wrong, lying, confused, or to contradict her statements. Regardless of whether or not He disagrees with her, He pursues her relentlessly.
Given when the film was made, the conversations that She and He have are striking in their gravity, in their devastating exploration of the way each character is haunted by the war. The film’s very discussion of the elusiveness of memory warns against separating the film’s fiction from its fact, the film as art and the film as historic event. On its own, the love story between She and He is deeply philosophical and poignant. Considering the film in its own time – less than 15 years after the atomic bomb – respects its full dramatic authority. The film that brought She to Japan may give particular insight into Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour. It is “about peace” and clearly concerns the aftermath of the bomb, providing a certain meta-commentary within Resnais’ film. The one glimpse we see of the film’s production shows its crew plodding through the streets of Hiroshima where the devastation was not yet a distant memory, much like Resnais’ crew would have done. In as much as Hiroshima mon amour illustrates the struggle of telling the difficult story of Hiroshima’s devastation, it nonetheless also shows the necessity of telling such a story.
– Katherine Springer