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. Its story is very simple and direct, and its easily understoond time games between past and present, by virture of their complete adoption by mainstream movies, are no longer as radical as they seemed when new. With the stylistic visuals robbed of their novelty, what's left is a fairly tame poetic rumination on love and memory.
In one of his interviews, Alain Resnais explains that this feature was initiated as an anti-nuke short subject by liberal producer Anatole Dauman (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 with shots of bodies making love, contrasted with photos, museum evidence, and movies of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. The film starts with a shot of human limbs covered with ash. Then the limbs are wet and the bodies look like they've been covered with shiny mud. It's a fairly effective.
What does the love-making have to do with nuclear warfare? When asked, Resnais quotes the standard Auteur line: "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". This mantra once seemed a generous empowerment of the viewer, but very soon became a dodge. The hollowness of art film directors talking about their own work never ceases, and rings true in even the cheapest parodies, like After the Fox. Filmmakers like this are wisest when they remain remote and near-silent about their own efforts, like Jean-Luc Godard.
Hiroshima mon amour was a big arthouse success because it was commercial: the combo of sensuality and nuclear holocaust was titilating, as Kubrick later demonstrated in Dr. Strangelove. At the time, when audiences had a hard time 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 French woman's participation in one of the Hiroshima anniversary memorials. The little film's biggest scene is its little peace parade. But Marguerite Duras' script came first. A very 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. Whereas the no-longer-novel construction is the film's weakest link, its account of the past ordeal of an emotionally-stressed woman is still valid.
Most successful theories about 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. 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 a key event of horror in her life, an emotional breakdown when her German lover was shot by partisans.That was when Riva was 18, and her screaming hate eventually subsided. She's since been married and had kids, but there's a scar of guilt and rage still present. She still believes that by not dying with her lover, she betrayed him. When she's not been thinking about him, she realizes that she's allowed him to die again. She holds herself responsible for her own memories, for not living in the past.
Riva's personal trauma is linked both to the forget/remember problem of Hiroshima, and to her present lover. Does she take random lovers 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' feminine 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 it seems that nothing can touch them. 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 back 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 was an impressive international co-production with the Japanese studio Daiei. It's a modest film that one really can't imagine being mounted by an American company. In terms of sophistication, the anti-nuke theme was totally new. The big & soapy On the Beach hadn't hit yet, and America was just getting ready to leave the Eisenhower years. Foreign features about real nuclear terror were virtually unknown here (The Russian Nine Days in One Year, and Kurosawa's I Live in Fear). So the sex & ashes combination of Hiroshima mon amour was an art-film natural that must have helped fuel the Ban The Bomb movement.
Young Emmanuelle Riva (Therese Desqueyroux, Thomas L'Imposteur) is glowingly beautiful and completely up to the task of bringing the moody, memory-obsessed woman to life. She's particularly convincing as her 18 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 the perfect Japanese lover: he speaks fluent French, has a European sensibility, and is equally beautiful. In 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 accustomed to its connected-disconnected flashback structure won't understand how revolutionary it 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.
Unfortunately, it's unlikely that green novices to the film are going to pick up on its significance without some additional food for thought - which perhaps is a negative statement about Hiroshima mon amour - are all films supposed to communicate as free-standing entities? This DVD package includes ample extras to fill in the blanks.
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 provides an interview from 1960, and an audio only talk from much later. Emmanuelle Riva also has two interviews, as very intelligent young woman in 1959, and a 2003 followup. The initial shock of seeing her aged 44 years is an example of Resnais' temporal theories in real life.
Excerpts from Marguerite Duras' screenplay notes are narrated over clips from the film. There's also an isolated music and effects track, and one of Criterion's exhaustive booklets, 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 Godard and Jacques Rivette don't conceal their total worship of Resnais and Hiroshima mon amour.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hiroshima mon amour rates:
1. Once a Resnais assistant,
Chris Marker himself made the perfect Resnais memory film, La Jetee. It's another time-travel
short subject, that cleverly uses still images to represent the 'fixed' nature of oneiric memories.