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Once considered remote and intellectual, director Alain Resnais now seems more accessible than ever. 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. In the place of a present-tense narrative, Resnais pursues the nature of memory, which can overwhelm consciousness.
Hiroshima mon amour is Resnais' breakout success and one of the most famous art film titles of the time. The film's story of a romantic encounter in Japan is refreshingly intimate and simple. Its time-shifts 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.
The film begins with almost abstract images, and then takes on the form of a documentary about a nuclear war museum in Hiroshima. It then settles into an intimate drama, outside the demands of standard dramatic conflicts. A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) is playing a nurse in an international movie about Hiroshima anti-nuke activism. She's just begun an affair with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). Confronted with reminders of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima fourteen years earlier, her consciousness awakened by the experience of making love to a foreigner, she revisits her own traumatic memories of WW2, back in France. 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 Resnais' earlier short subject Night and Fog. The first ten minutes or so of Hiroshima mon amour might be the "Ban The Bomb" short he's talking about. Behind a mysterious cadenced voiceover, shots of bodies making love are contrasted with photos, museum evidence, and movies of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. The dramatic film proper begins with a provocative image of human limbs covered with ash, entertwined. Then the limbs are wet and the bodies appear to be covered with shiny mud. Do the limbs begin to look cleaner? Is the lovemaking 'curing' the lovers?
What does the sex 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 art house success. It has an interracial romance and makes no accommodation for conservative opinions -- constipated American movies of 1959 might show a Caucasian male pairing up with an Asian female, but never the other way around. At the time the casual affair in Hiroshima was indeed unusual -- both parties are married and love their spouses and families. Neither feels that their affair need in any way damage those relationships. These are both outwardly sane and stable people... outwardly.
I readily believe Resnais' claim that Hiroshima mon amour 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, 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. Night and Fog is about an extermination camp, and the horror of forgetting that which screams out to be remembered. Last Year at Marienbad makes memory into a fractured puzzle where true events can't be distinguished from fantasies and dreams. Resnais' later J'taime, j'taime concerns a time traveler who can't change the past and save his lover. 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 must live in the present. Likewise, Emmanuelle Riva's Frenchwoman is trying to remember/forget/properly assimilate the emotional breakdown she suffered when her German lover was shot by partisans.
That was when she was 18. She's since been married and given birth to children, but deep scars of guilt and rage are still present. She still believes that she betrayed her lover by not dying with him. When she forgets about the German soldier even for a moment, she feels guilty for allowing him to 'die' again. She holds herself responsible for her own memories, for not living in the past.
Her personal trauma is linked to her present lover. Does she take occasional new strangers as love 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. Some of the dialogue has the repetitive quality of the later Marienbad, or Jean-Luc Godard:
How did I know your body would fit me like a glove?
You're killing me. You're good for me."
Duras and Resnais present a sane view of sex that reveals the crying hypocrisy, the infantilism, of the American Production Code. 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, to find a bliss where they become untouchable. This is what individuals seek after a personal trauma, and what the collective consciousness of the world seeks after something like Hiroshima. If Resnais had a character state that out loud, Hiroshima mon amour would be a travesty. We instead feel it through the concern and desire of Eiji Okada, and the intense Emmanuele Riva, an actress with infinitely expressive eyes.
News media harp moronically about the need for 'closure' for victims of crime or fate, as if humans must be cured of the need to think about their problems, to 'go forward.' Duras and Resnais posit the idea that people are by their 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. Perhaps Resnais would wish that humanity could adopt a collective feminine memory, to preserve the lessons of the past. See, I've interpreted the man's movie, and presumed to guess what the filmmaker intended. But that's what we all should do.
Hiroshima mon amour is an impressive international co-production with the Japanese studio Daiei. Japanese studios had made a number of dramas about Hiroshima, and the tragic problems suffered by some of the survivors. One example is Sohei Imamura's Black Rain, but that's from much later, 1988. Hiroshima mon amour uses excerpts from another film that I haven't seen, 1952's Children of Hiroshima. Excepting fantasies, American movies shied away from movies about atomic bombing, unless bluntly insisting that it was necessary. The nuclear soap opera On the Beach hadn't hit yet. Foreign features with atom war themes were virtually unknown here in 1959: the Soviet Union's Nine Days of One Year, Kurosawa's I Live in Fear. The sex + ashes images in Hiroshima mon amour are an art-film natural that surely contributed to the spirit of the Ban The Bomb movement. Yes, make love, not war.
The glowingly beautiful Emmanuelle Riva (Therese Desqueyroux, Thomas L'Imposteur) is fully 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 - that is shaved off when the partisans seize her. Eiji Okada (The Ugly American, Woman in the Dunes, The Yakuza) is an ideal Japanese lover. He appears to speak fluent French, has a worldly sensibility and is equally beautiful. The two of them have and effortless chemistry, sexual and otherwise; it's difficult to believe that they were not actual lovers. I feel sure that art house audiences in 1959 thought the same thing.
Is Hiroshima mon amour a great picture? Definitely yes, although modern audiences will not likely appreciate how difficult American audiences found its revolutionary flashback structure. In 1959, flashbacks were used in very limited ways, and were rarely triggered by 'memory flashes.' Audiences might also have been confused by Resnais' intellectual editing, which compares 'real' and 'staged' material, contrasting newsreels of real Hiroshima burns against recreations from Children of Hiroshima, and the made-up actors performing in Riva's pro-peace movie. When Riva and Okada stand watching the peace parade, some of the extras playing burn victims watch as well, smiling with half their bodies burned away. Some of the 1945 newsreel images are difficult to look at, yet cry out to be seen; Resnais makes them viewable, with the same judgment and tact he used in Night and Fog.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Hiroshima mon amour uses a major 2013 restoration, and includes a featurette showing how much work was done, and what decisions had to be made to bring it back to the condition as shown in 1959. It looks flawless, brand-new, with rich cinematography filmed both in Japan and France. The delicate soundtrack is equally clear.
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 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 do not conceal their worship of Resnais and his film.
New for 2015 are an interview with film scholar François Thomas, and another with music expert Tim Page. Kent Jones provides the insert essay, followed by a text discussion with French film critics from 1959.
In the extras we're surprised to learn that Eiji Okada had no experience with the French language, and spoke his dialogue phonetically. He speaks so fluently, that I would never have been the wiser. The cover design uses a close-up of a human palm, which forms an image similar to an aerial bombing map of Hiroshima, right down to wrinkles that suggest the city's converging rivers. As the movie offers disorienting close-ups of naked skin as part of its imagery, this is a brilliant design.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Once a Resnais assistant, Chris Marker himself made the perfect Resnais memory film, La jetée. It's another time-travel short subject, which cleverly uses still images to represent the 'fixed' nature of oneiric memories.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.