Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Alain Resnais is about as arty a director as they come, making the New Wave boys look like callow crowdpleasers. His Last Year at Marienbad is almost militant in its insistence on being fascinating but impenetrable; what some viewers call hypnotic, puts others immediately to sleep.
Hiroshima mon amour is Resnais' breakout success and one of the most famous art film titles of the time. The film's story is simple and direct, and its time-shifting between past and present are no longer as radical as they seemed when new. With the stylistic visuals robbed of their novelty, what's left is a moving, poetic rumination on love and memory.
A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) filming a movie about peace in Japan has an affair with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). Contronted with reminders of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima fourteen years earlier, she revisits her own memories of WW2 horror. Her German soldier lover (Bernard Fresson) was shot, and she was scourged as a collaborator.
In one of his interviews, Alain Resnais explains that this feature was initiated as an anti-nuke short subject by liberal producer Anatole Dauman the maker of Night and Fog. The first ten minutes or so of Hiroshima mon amour might be the "Ban The Bomb" short he's talking about. It's a mysterious mingling of cadenced voiceover set against shots of bodies making love contrasted with photos, museum evidence, and movies of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. The film starts with an effective image of human limbs covered with ash. Then the limbs are wet and the bodies look like they've been covered with shiny mud.
What does the love-making have to do with nuclear warfare? When asked, Resnais responds with "I make movies, I don't interpret them" and, "It's all open to personal interpretation, and my interpretation is no more relevant than any viewer's". Hiroshima mon amour was a commercial arthouse success: the combination of sensuality and nuclear holocaust was titilating, as Kubrick later demonstrated in Dr. Strangelove. At the time, when audiences had difficulty figuring out the flashback backstory, it must have seemed that the (very tame) sex scenes were ennobled by the anti-nuke content, and the peace agenda was made more commercial by the romantic drama.
I'd almost believe that Resnais' story originated as a simple account of a Frenchwoman's participation in one of the Hiroshima anniversary memorials. The film's biggest scene is its little peace parade. But Marguerite Duras' script came first. A prolific writer whose own story became the source for Jean-Jacques Annaud's later 1992 The Lover, Duras is the real sensibility behind the movie. Her account of the past ordeal of an emotionally-stressed woman is still valid.
Most Resnais films center on the theme of memory. As memories can shift, the theme has a lot of potential. Last Year at Marienbad makes memory into a fractured puzzle where true events can't be distinguished from fantasies and dreams. Night and Fog is about the horror of forgetting that which screams out to be remembered. Resnais' J'taime, j'taime concerns a time traveller who can't change the past and save his lover, but its Science Fiction trappings seem irrelevant -- who needs time travel in a Resnais film? 1
Hiroshima mon amour has one event, the bombing, that everyone is supposed to remember. But it fades as well. Even the citizens of Hiroshima have moved on - people have to greet one another with 'Good Morning'; they have to live in the present. Likewise, Emmanuelle Riva is trying to remember/forget/properly assimilate the emotional breakdown she suffered when her German lover was shot by partisans.
That was when Riva was 18. She's since been married and had kids, but a scar of guilt and rage are still present. She still believes that she betrayed her lover by not dying with him. She realizes that when she forgets about the German soldier, she's allowing him to die again. She holds herself responsible for her own memories, for not living in the past.
Riva's personal trauma is linked to her present lover. Does she take random partners to bring her German beau briefly back to life? Is she anxious because her encounter with her Japanese lover has become too serious, and breaking it off is too remindful of the violent end of her first love affair? Duras' viewpoint seems to say that women have a 'sensuality memory', an inner river with a continuity that links all affairs into one whole.
Kubrick's Colonel Ripper was paranoid about the 'act of physical love', without realizing that lovemaking worried him because it was so counter to the rest of his military-obsessed life. Duras and Resnais realize that loving sex is one of the few emotional acts that can blot out one's memories, and alter perceived reality. Lovers retreat for a few minutes into a world of their own, a bliss where they become untouchable. This is exactly what individuals seek after trauma, and what the collective consciousness of the world seeks after something like Hiroshima.
News media harp moronically about the need for 'closure' for victims of crime or fate, as if they need to be cured of the need to think about their problems. Duras and Resnais posit the idea that living people are by their very nature unequipped to deal with tragedy. If forgetfulness doesn't do the job, people will resort to denial. This links to the pacifist sign in the Hiroshima peace parade that reminds us that man's political sophistication hasn't kept pace with his technological ingenuity ... as humans, we aren't yet ready to deal with the consequences of our reckless actions. Resnais would wish humanity could adopt a collective feminine memory, to preserve the lessons of the past.
Hiroshima mon amour is an impressive international co-production with the Japanese studio Daiei. Its anti-nuke theme was totally new. The nuclear soap opera On the Beach hadn't hit yet, and foreign features about real nuclear terror were virtually unknown here: Russia's Nine Days in One Year, Kurosawa's I Live in Fear. The sex & ashes combination of Hiroshima mon amour was an art-film natural that surely contributed to the Ban The Bomb movement.
The glowingly beautiful Emmanuelle Riva (Therese Desqueyroux, Thomas L'Imposteur) is completely up to the task of bringing the moody, memory-obsessed woman to life. She's particularly convincing as her eighteen year-old self from 1945, with a younger face and a period hairstyle. Eiji Okada (The Ugly American, Woman in the Dunes, The Yakuza) is an ideal Japanese lover: he speaks fluent French, has a European sensibility and is equally beautiful. Seen only briefly is Bernard Fresson as Riva's luckless German lover. He's immediately familiar from Is Paris Burning? and French Connection II.
Is Hiroshima mon amour a great picture? Definitely yes, although modern audiences may not appreciate how revolutionary its flashback structure was at the time, when all flashbacks needed very literal preparation. Some of Resnais' staging is a little obvious, as when newsreels of real Hiroshima burns are contrasted against shots from a re-created film, and the made-up actors in Riva's "peace" movie. When Riva and Okada stand watching the peace parade, some of the 'burned' extras watch too, smiling with half their bodies burned away.
Criterion's DVD of Hiroshima mon amour is a pricey but impressive special edition. The restored film is the best Savant's ever seen it, with a very clean full-frame transfer and sparklingly clear sound.
Peter Cowie provides the analytical commentary. Alain Resnais appears in an interview from 1960, and an audio-only talk from much later. Emmanuelle Riva also has two interviews, as an intelligent young woman in 1959, and a 2003 follow-up. The initial shock of seeing her suddenly age 44 years is a real-life demonstration of Resnais' temporal theories.
Excerpts from Marguerite Duras' screenplay notes are narrated over clips from the film. The disc also carries an isolated music and effects track and an exhaustive booklet containing an essay on one of the composers, more notes by writer Duras, and a French critical round-table discussion from when the film was new. Notables Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette don't conceal their worship of Resnais and his film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hiroshima mon amour rates:
Supplements: See above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 26, 2003
1. Once a Resnais assistant, Chris Marker himself made the perfect Resnais memory film, La jetée;. It's another time-travel short subject, that cleverly uses still images to represent the 'fixed' nature of oneiric memories.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson