Hiroshima mon amour is often described as a love story concerning an ephemeral affair between an unnamed French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and an unnamed Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). I have always preferred viewing it as a character study of a melancholy and disturbed woman attempting to come to terms with her troubled past via shifting, subjective memory. Regardless, any attempt to categorize this challenging, deeply felt film in a summary fashion will ultimately prove futile. Hiroshima mon amour is many things to many people: a staggeringly pretentious / utterly ambitious art film that has bored / invigorated many cinema and philosophy students over the decades; a brilliant evocation of time and memory more akin to literature than traditional cinema; a metaphoric, almost abstract representation of the horror and guilt of war as filtered through an intense romantic affair that may or may not be taking place in the present. Subjective interpretations aside, it is beyond question that its formal and narrative influence remains evident today. Now given a typically thorough, excellent treatment by Criterion, Hiroshima mon amour will again confound, move, and challenge.
Hiroshima mon amour was originally envisioned as a documentary concerning the atomic bomb. Alain Resnais agreed to take the helm as director only if his friend and colleague Chris Marker (who had previously assisted him with Night and Fog) would write the treatment. That never came to pass (Marker excused himself after ten days), and Resnais suggested Marguerite Duras as a potential writer. They met, and after discussing the "impossibility" of the project, Duras was soon working on an original screenplay in which the bombing of Hiroshima and its psychological aftermath would be paralleled with the troubled wartime past of the French actress visiting the city. As Peter Cowie notes in his scholarly, comprehensive commentary, Resnais deferred to Duras completely, offering very little input as to edits or changes. His only requests were that she treat the screenplay like a novel and produce something "almost abstract." Compounding the difficulties inherent in the subject matter alone was the fact that this became a French-Japanese production, complete with location shooting in the two countries with separate production teams. The result, however, is strikingly coherent.
Hiroshima quickly establishes a thick mood of otherworldliness: in an extreme closeup, the film begins with a vision of two intertwined, almost indistinguishable naked bodies moving slowly, covered in ash. As the languorous movements continue, the dialogue and voiceovers are sparse and contradictory ("You're destroying me; you're good for me"). The atmosphere becomes even thicker as Resnais inserts archival footage from the bombing and portions of re-enactments from a Japanese film entitled Children of Hiroshima, interspersed with the woman's voice over, commenting upon her claims that she "saw" (and can thereby understand) what happened at Hiroshima. Her lover flatly dismisses her, stating that she "saw nothing." Throughout the course of the film, Hiroshima continues in this vein of personal and interpersonal impenetrability, exploring the subjective nature of recollection and understanding, which is as relevant to the universal as it is to these particulars.
The lovers chat briefly after their interlude and part ways from the "New Hiroshima Hotel." Attending a mock peace rally being staged for the camera, she encounters her Japanese lover again. Now in his home, it is established that each has embarked upon an adulterous affair. As the conversations continue (often as monologues by the woman), both her past and the role of the man/other begin to intersect, eventually synthesizing into the "present" as the woman recalls her illicit affair in Nevers with a German soldier during France's occupation. This tale is the crux of her dilemma: while in the throes of first, intoxicating love, her lover was shot and her parents punished her by shaving her head and locking her in a cellar. (Apparently, this was common for women who communed with the occupying force; Cowie notes in his commentary that this "Scarlet letter" approach of shorn hair and public humiliation was suffered by Arletty, the lead actress in Carné's Children of Paradise. Her career never recovered as a result.) While locked away she scrapes the walls and her own skin, suffering both physical injury and emotional torment (alert viewers will note that in Kieslowski's Blue Juliette Binoche does something similar; the fact that Riva appears as her mother in that film - complete with a failing memory, moving between the present and the past - can hardly be described as coincidental). Crushed by shame, the woman's appearance becomes that of a shell-shocked survivor herself, evoking the initial images of the blast survivors. Repetition, both thematically and formally, is also a key concern for Renais and Duras.
Appreciating why Hiroshima mon amour was considered so daring and innovative for its time is relatively easy if taken in context (Cowie notes this as well, and also suggests some current films that owe a huge debt to Resnais and Duras). Duras delivered what Resnais requested: a charged, thoroughly solemn treatise on the role of memory and its influence on present existence. As her recollections continue, gathering in blunt psychological force, Hiroshima mon amour's approach becomes completely elliptical – since all boundaries of imposed time are utterly removed, there are no flashbacks of the "past" per se. The past is not merely influencing the woman's consciousness in the present; it is omnipresent, informing and commenting on virtually every word, every glance, and every tale told to her Japanese lover (Resnais noted that in this film "time is shattered"). Resnais evokes her anomic subjectivity formally by seamlessly editing the Nevers sequences with her current surroundings in Hiroshima. Accomplished via visual rhyming throughout, he skillfully parallels the bomb survivors, her current and ex-lover, and her own plight through careful and rigorous montage.
Resnais does not presume to compare the trials of one woman to the atrocity of Hiroshima – he and Duras are far too respectful for such a conceit. What they are attempting is to provide a more negotiable context to the tragedy (and an uncertain future) by focusing and highlighting it through the eyes of an individual. As Resnais noted in Night and Fog, such events are so inherently overwhelming that comprehension is almost impossible when approached wholly. Like that brilliant documentary, Hiroshima possesses a mournful and contemplative grace that reverberates long after viewing.
Video: Presented in its original full frame, the new high definition digital transfer is excellent. Minor instances of shimmering and the occasional speck appear; otherwise, it's beautifully rendered. Some of the archival footage and inserted film footage is understandably compromised (as it was edited into the film itself), but the sequences shot for Hiroshima proper by Sacha Vierny and Michio Takahashi are nothing short of luminous. Black levels are rich and solid, contrast appears proper, detail is excellent, and I cannot imagine that the film has ever looked better since its release.
Audio: Presented in DD 1.0 Mono, Hiroshima sounds good as well, remarkably clear and free of any hissing or cracking, etc. Dialogue remains easy to hear throughout, and the musical contributions by Giovanni Fusco and Georges Delerue are presented in all their respective atonal and dreamlike beauty. Criterion has also included an isolated music and effects track on this release, as they did with Resnais' Night and Fog. Removable English subtitles are included.
Extras: Included is a full length feature commentary by film historian Peter Cowie. His comments are presented in a scholarly – though engaging – fashion, and his insights will undoubtedly prove helpful to those not familiar with either Resnais or this film. He also recounts some empirical and scientific data regarding the bombing of Hiroshima, discusses psychological interpretations of the film, and also charts the film's history (and its director) at Cannes. This is a typically erudite presentation, and a valuable addition to this release.
Alain Resnais interviews: Included also are two interviews with director Alain Resnais. A brief interview with the film program Cinepanorama (5:43) is both informative and entertaining. Standing directly before the camera answering questions by Francois Chalais, Resnais is unassuming, gracious, and at times very funny. My favorite exchange:
FC: "You don't consider yourself an avant garde auteur?"
The second interview with Resnais is in audio form from Le Cinéma des cinéastes (10:57). Resnais discusses various topics, including Hiroshima's parallels to Night and Fog, the difficulty in approaching such subject matter (he was convinced Hiroshima could not be made), and how his collaboration with Duras occurred. Throughout, Resnais is self-effacing, humble, and extremely measured.
Emmanuelle Riva interviews: Included are two video interviews with Riva included in this release, including one shot specifically for it. The first is an interview (5:42) taken at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. Riva recounts her experiences with the shooting, and also remarks on her new found stardom (Hiroshima was her first film).
The second interview (19:19), conducted in 2003, is far more illuminating. It is interesting to view the differences between the ingenue and the much more assured, still elegant woman on display. She discusses how she was selected for the film (an agent had photographs of her, even though she had no formal representation at the time), how the multinational crew worked together (including her co-star, who did not speak French and had to deliver his lines phonetically), and how the film's success was not anticipated by any involved. Riva also opines as to what her character did at the end of the film (interesting, since even Resnais and Duras apparently disagreed - such is Hiroshima). She is charming and informative throughout, and her contributions are another solid extra.
Screenplay annotations by Marguerite Duras: This segment (8:21) places an English voiceover to correlating scenes from the film, providing further context and description to the passages shown. This feature, though brief, is interesting in that it demonstrates just how deft Resnais' visualizations are.
Lastly, a thorough, 32-page booklet is included, featururing an essay on the film by Kent Jones; notes from a roundtable discussion of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd (Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer, among others, note the importance and implications of Hiroshima just after its release); an essay by Russell Lack concerning the composer of the film, Giovanni Fusco; and portraits of the two characters written by Duras.
Final Thoughts: Hiroshima mon amour skillfully manipulates time and memory to rhythmic, haunting effect. Its formal innovations have perhaps been rendered less novel over the years, but its execution has not lost any of its lyricism or poignancy. Hiroshima mon amour was never intended to be a formal one trick pony, and to view is as such cheapens both Duras' thematic concerns and Resnais' seamless treatment. To those with little patience for contemplative, relentlessly serious films, Hiroshima will prove deadly (possibly the only other film from the period that is even more contentiously divisive is Resnais' next film, Last Year at Marienbad).
To those that have ever wanted to reconsider the film, this DVD release is perhaps the perfect way to do so – in private, quiet observation. I have appreciated Hiroshima in progressively greater measure with repeated visits over the years, and I look forward to many more with this excellent Criterion edition. This release is essential viewing, most highly recommended to fans of Duras, Resnais, students of the cinema in general, and the New Wave in particular.