"Hi-ro-shi-ma. Hiroshima. That's your name."
In 1959, documentary filmmaker Alain Resnais (Night and Fog) took his first stab at feature filmmaking. The result was Hiroshima Mon Amour, a film that pushed at the perceived limitations of cinema as art in its radically fluid non-linear construction and ambiguous melding of personal and global tragedy. It became a major influence on the young critics writing for the French film journal, Cahiers du Cinéma, who were that very year making their first forays into filmmaking, creating the art film movement known as the French New Wave.
Facts of the Case
While in Hiroshima making a "peace film," a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva, Blue) takes up an affair with a Japanese engineer and politician (Eiji Okada, Woman in the Dunes). Her passion for her new lover forces her to confront painful memories of a youthful affair she had with a German soldier in Nevers, France during the occupation, that soldier's death, and her subsequent shaming as a Nazi collaborator.
Past melds with present, her personal pain and trauma with Hiroshima's horror, and her Japanese lover with the German, as she struggles to make her shattered psyche whole.
It's not just its historical significance in the world of cinema that gives Hirsohima Mon Amour its appeal over forty years after its initial release. Its visual power and beauty, coupled with its political and emotional ambiguity, make it a movie worth watching…again and again.
The film famously opens with close-ups of entwined human limbs covered in ash, evoking a catastrophe of great cost in human lives then, through a series of dissolves, brings us to the entwined, sweaty limbs of the film's lovers. These shots convey in seconds the weird tension between the personal and the global at the film's core. They're also an indication of the visual density of Resnais' work: nothing on screen is throw-away. Those opening shots are followed by a 10-minute tour de force segment in which Resnais seamlessly combines newly shot footage of the macabre artifacts (hair, teeth, pieces of human flesh in plastic display cases) at Hiroshima's museum remembering the nuclear attack, footage from Children of Hiroshima (Gembaku no ko), Japanese director Kaneto Shindô's 1952 feature about the attack and its effects on the city's population, and gruesome newsreel footage of the injured and dying shot days after the bomb was dropped.
The opening montage is accompanied by the lyrical voice-over of the lovers, the French woman's insistence she's seen Hiroshima and the effects of the bomb, the Japanese man's denial she ever could. The elliptical, artificial, and literary nature of the voice-over, its load of subtext, is no accident. Hiroshima Mon Amour is a collaboration between Resnais and French novelist Marguerite Duras (The Sailor from Gibraltar, The Lover), who wrote the screenplay. Like many of Duras' novels, the film focuses on the nature of and relationship between memory and forgetting, juxtaposing the experience of the individual with that of a larger culture. The French woman's trauma is rooted in her conflicting needs to both remember and forget her German lover and the death and personal humiliation that attended their affair. Those events are seminal for the person she is today and worthy of being remembered, but they are also traumatic and there's a desire to forget them—and him—in order to achieve a psychological wholeness. In the same way, the Japanese people must both remember and forget Hiroshima. This connection between the personal and cultural is loose to say the least. Intended to resonate against one another, there is no direct connection between the woman's tragedy and the tragedy in Hiroshima except that it's in Hiroshima the French woman takes her Japanese lover, causing her to remember her earlier lover even as the Japanese man's face and body erode the German's unique presence in her memory.
By viewing the French woman's tragedy through the lens of Hiroshima while simultaneously viewing Hiroshima through the lens of the French woman's tragedy, Resnais and Duras are able to consistently maintain thematic complexity and intellectual ambiguity. For all its focus on the American bombing of Hiroshima, the film never slides into political polemic. In the extract of the Cahiers du Cinéma round-table discussion reprinted in the DVD's insert booklet, Jean-Luc Godard poses the question, "Is Hiroshima a left-wing or a right-wing film?" Tellingly, none of the round-table's participants is able to answer. Filtering the film's themes through concrete political ideology would have undermined the impact of the exploration of the French woman's psyche, producing a simplistic and dull geo-political diatribe. The closest the film comes to a statement of political ideology is during the peace march in the second act. It almost reads as an earnest statement of political belief, except that it's staged as a scene from the peace film in which the French woman is acting. Resnais and Duras may (or may not) agree with the sentiments on the peace marchers' placards, but the artificiality of the staging, the near crassness of the presence of actors made up to look like bomb victims and milling around as extras in the shots (particularly juxtaposed against the gruesome newsreel footage in the film's first act), prevents us from completely associating our sensibilities with those of the marchers. The weight and impact of Hiroshima can't be summed up with simple slogans or aphorisms. Its meaning and effect are too complex, too nuanced, too broadly human to be contained by something as rigid as political ideology or even conventional film. As in Night and Fog, Resnais' documentary short film about the Holocaust, the filmmaker struggles here to find the viability and meaning of art in the face of such horror.
Hiroshima's the sort of movie that can be talked about endlessly. I've only barely scratched the surface, but I'm going to stop. Like all great art, it speaks for itself: my observations only reduce it. It's best allowed to unfold during multiple viewings. For those who've never seen it, the less you know going in, the better off you'll be.
Let's move on to tech and extras:
The bulk of Hiroshima Mon Amour was shot by Japanese cinematographer Michio Takahashi, with flashbacks to the French woman's youth in Nevers shot by French cinematographer Sacha Vierny (who would go on to be the cinematographer of choice for British director Peter Greenaway). Their work is beautifully framed, and shot in black and white at a 1.33:1 full screen aspect ratio. The Criterion Collection's DVD presentation is, well, standard Criterion, which is to say just about perfect. Major source flaws are isolated to the newsreel footage in the film's first act and are the sort Orson Welles intentionally added to Citizen Kane's first-act material in order to make it feel like a real newsreel. In other words, the flaws are almost aesthetically necessary. There is some fine grain preserved from the source; blacks are solid; and the gray scale is subtle, rich, and gorgeous. If you're a fan of black and white film, as I am, this is a disc to be savored.
The film's original mono soundtrack, in French, has been meticulously restored. The only remaining flaws are minor instances of distortion in isolated moments of spiking volume, flaws inherent in the original recording and not a result of the track's deterioration over time.
The disc is loaded with extras, starting with a commentary by film historian Peter Cowie. Academic, analytical, and anecdotal, the track is highly informative even if Cowie's delivery is sometimes stiff (it sounds like he's reading from detailed and well-organized notes). Still, what it lacks in style it more than makes up for in substance, and one need not worry about long gaps of silence.
The isolated music and effects track is my favorite feature on the disc. Italian composer Giovanni Fusco's (L'Avventura) score is in the rich style of modernist composers like Anton Webern and Igor Stravinsky, just as Duras' script owes a debt to modernist writers like Hemingway and Faulkner. The score stands well on its own and is deserving of isolated treatment. In addition, Resnais' images are amazingly expressive sans dialogue.
Samples of Marguerite Duras' screenplay annotations are read by Laylage Courie, accompanied by scenes from the film. They're an education in the precision with which Resnais brought Duras' descriptive language to visual life.
There are two brief interviews with Resnais, one from the Cinepanorama television show in 1961, the other an audio interview from 1980. Emmanuelle Riva also provides two interviews, one from the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, the other newly recorded in 2003 for the release of this disc.
The 32-page insert booklet that accompanies the disc is also a fountain of information, containing a new essay by film critic Kent Jones, excerpts from the 1959 Cahier du Cinéma round-table discussion among the Nouvelle Vague heavyweights, an essay about Fusco's score by film music historian Russell Lack, and portraits of the lead characters written by Duras.
Combined, the extras provide an excellent framework—a point of departure—for absorbing and analyzing the film. However, if you've never seen Hiroshima Mon Amour, I recommend you watch it three or four times…heck, a half dozen…before allowing the experts to weigh in. First allow the film to speak for itself.
Enigmatic and difficult on a first pass, Hiroshima Mon Amour is a film that rewards multiple viewings. Give it a shot. You may just discover that rarest of films that makes you think and feel deeply, and draws you back again and again and again.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Film Scholar Peter Cowie
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