Monthly Archives: August 2015

  • Hiroshima Mon Amour

    Alain Resnais (1959)

    It’s so famous that I was relieved to find it completely absorbing but, although I’m probably failing to grasp what Resnais and Marguerite Duras, who wrote the screenplay, were trying to do, I’m not convinced that the film is all that it’s cracked up to be.  I don’t think I’ll quickly forget the long opening sequence:  the camera cuts between the flesh of two bodies making love (we don’t see the couple’s faces at this point) and shots of what happened to the flesh of other bodies in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 – with a mixture of newsreel footage and filmed reconstruction of that day.  (As I understood it, the reconstructions were being shown as part of what the public could see on a visit to the Hiroshima Museum.)  The lovers’ limbs gleam with sweat and glitter with what could be either sand or ash.   The images are accompanied by the voices of a woman and a man.   Whatever she claims she knows, he contradicts – especially her claim that she knows about Hiroshima.   The repetition of phrases gives the dialogue an incantatory quality – a calculatedly incantatory quality.  From the start of the film, I was drawn in by what I was seeing and somewhat resistant to what I was hearing.

    The woman is a French actress, in Hiroshima in the late 1950s to make a film about Hiroshima – a film which we’re told has political aims, to promote nuclear disarmament and world peace.  The man is a Japanese architect, in the city for a few days.  Both are married.  The importance – and artistic self-importance – of their relationship is reflected in their namelessness:  she is ‘elle’; he is ‘lui’.  (By the time of Last Year at Marienbad, a couple of years later, Resnais had progressed to calling his female protagonist A and the leading man X.)   As the woman, the beautiful Emmanuelle Riva gives a superbly accomplished and fluid performance, even if she is a little aware of her emotional exquisiteness.  As her lover, Eiji Okada has good looks that are strikingly Western.  This seemed a humanly believable reason for the French woman to be attracted to him – although it has an odd effect on the thematic scheme of the film:  it dilutes the implication that the lovers are absolutely inaccessible to one other.  (The situation also brings to mind Marguerite Duras’s own affair with a Chinese man in the French Indochina of her youth.)

    Hiroshima Mon Amour seems to be about two things:  the contingency of love and the psychic effects of Hiroshima.   I think it’s stronger as the former – as a description of the immense chance of this man and woman coming together – than the latter.  The location naturally inflates the significance of their brief encounter so that it takes on an apocalyptic quality – but the script is puzzlingly unbalanced.  It seems to be so predominantly about the woman’s psychology that it becomes an illustration of the structure of that opening exchange between them.  This may well be intentional yet I couldn’t understand why, for example, we see flashbacks to the woman’s experience in central France in the last days of the Second World War – but not to the man’s past (he was in the Japanese army when the bomb was dropped but his family was in Hiroshima).  Most of the talk between the couple – in hotel bedrooms and bars – is convincing partly because it reflects an experience familiar to us all:  of being in a conversation in which one person dominates and what they have to say is egocentric, and the other is reduced to asking polite, intelligent questions – which encourage their interlocutor to talk even more.

    During the war, the woman had an affair with a German soldier in her home town of Nevers.  (He appears to have been shot dead on the eve of the American attack on Hiroshima but I must have misunderstood this, given when the German occupation of France ended.)   The affair results in public disgrace and humiliation for the woman and she has a nervous breakdown.  Her hair is cut short in punishment for her sexual collusion with the enemy:  the resonance of her hair loss with what happened to victims of Hiroshima also comes across as an example of diminishing the experience of huge numbers of Japanese in relation to that of a single European.  When she’s recovered her hair and her sanity, she leaves Nevers for Paris never to return.  (A presumably unintended consequence of the choice of Nevers is that to English eyes and ears it looks and sounds like ‘never’.  You’re especially conscious of this when the Japanese man plays with the word, pronouncing it as two separate syllables then running them together.)  The woman tells the Japanese that he is the first man who has mattered to her since the German.   The implication of that opening dialogue – that she, as a non-Japanese, can’t know about Hiroshima in the way that the man does – is picked up in the final exchange between them, when he says, ‘I am Hiroshima and you are Nevers’.   The connotations of the two places obviously aren’t comparable but I found the import of Nevers confusing.  If it were presented simply as a seminal part of the woman’s personal experience, the contrast with the collective trauma of Hiroshima would be clear, even if artificial.  But what happened in the woman’s past seems so inflected with political significance that the distinction between Hiroshima and Nevers is blurred (without any loss of artificiality).  I was interested in the idea that different kinds of guilt informed the woman’s affairs with the German and the Japanese but perhaps that’s not what Resnais and Duras were meaning to suggest.

    By coincidence, I read in this week’s TLS a review of a book by Emma Wilson about the films of Atom Egoyan, which includes the following:

    ‘[Wilson] suggestively relates Ararat to Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959):  both works use a film-within-a-film to pose questions about the appropriate aesthetic response to an atrocity.’

    I don’t see how Hiroshima Mon Amour does this – or that it can really be described as ‘a film-within-a-film’.  The fact that the woman is an actress making a film in and about Hiroshima seems to be used to establish immediately the self-awareness of Duras and Resnais; but once we’ve been told this, seen the woman in the nurse’s costume she wears for the film and watched a couple of sequences of shooting it (which are remarkable – especially the sequence when the woman is handling a little white cat), what significance does the film-within-a-film dimension have – beyond meaning that the heroine is in Hiroshima only temporarily and intending to leave imminently (which of course is dramatically useful)?

    In visual and aural terms, Hiroshima Mon Amour is beautifully composed.  It was photographed by Sacha Vierny and Michio Takahashi and, even half a century later, it’s most unusual to look at.  Describing this is beyond me but the depth and changing temperature of the monochrome images are extraordinary.  Georges Delerue’s music delicately combines European and Japanese melodies.   I suspect the picture was regarded as an instant classic when it first appeared partly because of its technical qualities and partly because its subject was so urgently important.   Hiroshima marked the end of a war and the beginning of a new age of fear across the developed world (the woman says something to this effect at one point).  In 1959, life went on under a cloud that was the threat of a mushroom cloud.   The film’s end-of-the-world atmosphere must have been very much in tune with the zeitgeist – and it may, for similar reasons, have new resonances now and in the future.  But it can’t stand outside film history in the way it might have seemed to do at the time it was made.  Its transcendent features don’t conceal its pretentious and distorting ones.

    10 May 2009

  • Julia

    Fred Zinnemann (1977)

    Julia is based on a memoir by Lillian Hellman called Pentimento: A Book of Portraits.  In a voice-over at the start of the film, Jane Fonda, as Hellman, explains that ‘pentimento’ is an underlying image in a painting – an image painted over in the making of the work because (in Hellman’s words) ‘the artist repented’, but which becomes newly visible with the passage of time.  I saw Julia on its release and had never seen it again in the more than three decades since.   It’s an unfortunate irony – given this essential imagery of what can happen to a visual work of art as the years pass – that the audience in NFT2 received an apology, as the film was about to start, for the poor colour quality of what, according to BFI, is ‘the best print currently available’.  Everything looked to have been shot (by Douglas Slocombe) through a pinky-beige gauze.  But seeing the film again was a pleasurable and emotional experience for me and it’s pointless to pretend that its power isn’t thanks largely to le temps qui passe and the changing significance – then and now – of the amazing range of people involved in Julia:  Fred Zinnemann, Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook, Maximilian Schell, Georges Delerue, Alvin Sargent, Slocombe, the costume designer Anthea Sylbert and, in her cinema debut, Meryl Streep.

    Julia was released in the USA in the early autumn of 1977, which means it was also one of the first crop of films of which I read Pauline Kael’s review at the time it appeared.  (I’d read her collections and seen the New Yorker occasionally but hadn’t previously got it each week.)   The picture means a lot to me for that very reason – and more because I so admired Kael’s piece on Julia.  The PK factor was very strong;  I enjoyed going to the cinema but her reviews were what I often enjoyed more – to the extent that seeing the film (which nearly always happened some time after I’d read what PK thought of it) was the consummation of a process that began with reading the review.  PK’s writing enthused me so much that her panning a movie would often not deter me from wanting to see it – watching a film she loathed was worthwhile because it still completed the experience which her review of it had started.  I wasn’t very independent-minded; I found it hard (if not impossible) to dissent from her judgments.  But going to see the film was more than going through the motions of confirming that she was right.  The good films were enriching experiences, both in themselves and in relation to what she had written about them.  The bad films might often have good things in them (or, even if they didn’t, be entertaining in some way).  They often increased my appreciation of what PK had had to say.  I realised even then that my natural tastes were very different from hers and, over the years, I’ve come to disagree with her more.  But I know that it’s she, rather than any film genre or director or actor or friend with whom I’ve seen or talked about pictures, who is responsible for my love of movies and who has influenced the way that I look at them.  Nearly 20 years after she retired from regular reviewing and more than seven years since her death, I rarely see a film without wondering what she would have made of it.  And because her writing about cinema seems to me in a class of its own, I’m rarely tempted to read anyone else’s review before seeing a film.  (The fact that I still read ‘The Current Cinema’ in the New Yorker is partly a way of sustaining a connection with her reviews for it – although I do now enjoy the magazine in other ways too.  When PK was writing, I read her reviews and looked at the cartoons; I read more nowadays.)  I think being in thrall to PK has actually helped me, in the long run, to take a more autonomous view of the films I see.

    These various associations make me so well disposed – I suppose sentimentally disposed – in favour of Julia that it’s no surprise that seeing it again this week made me feel good while I was watching it and gave a more positive aptness to the ‘pentimento’ metaphor.  If the power of the associations means that I watched the film from too skewed a perspective to see it afresh, the experience was also a useful reminder of the obvious fact that one always brings one’s own experience and prejudices to the cinema.  I’m almost grateful for the poor quality of the print, which increased my awareness of my essentially retrospective outlook on the film.

    Julia is about the friendship of two girls, and the young women that they become:  Lillian Hellman, from a middle-class Jewish background, and the patrician Julia, heiress to a Wasp family fortune.  As pre-adolescent girls, Julia is the fearless leader, to whom Lily (as she’s known to all) plays devoted, self-doubting second fiddle.  I’m very glad the BFI have shown Julia but I think it’s pushing it to include the film in the regular ‘Out at the Pictures’ slot on the monthly programme.  Julia is worshipped by Lily when they’re children and always remains a heroine to her.  In one scene, Lily says ‘I love you, Julia’ (which is obviously true but doesn’t have to imply sexual love); in another, a snaky male friend says to Lily, ‘Everyone knows about you and Julia’ (and she lands a right hook on him).  Lillian Hellman’s breakthrough as a writer came with The Children’s Hour.   These things don’t seem to me enough to suggest, however, that the relationship of Lily and Julia was essentially lesbian (and it certainly wasn’t ‘out’).

    The early scenes crosscut between flashbacks to her girlhood and Lily’s relationship with Dashiell Hammett and her attempts to write a hit play.  After the Broadway success of The Children’s Hour, shortly before the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Lily travels to Paris with her friends Mr and Mrs Alan Campbell (Mrs Campbell is actually Dorothy Parker but this is a minor role and Rosemary Murphy plays it modestly).  In a Paris hotel lobby, Lily is approached by a man (Maximilian Schell), who’s been sent by Julia, now working for an organisation that helps Jews get out of Germany and Eastern Europe.  Julia wants Lily, who will be travelling to Moscow, to smuggle funds across the French-German border.  Lily’s train journey, from the Gare du Nord to Berlin, where she briefly meets and hands over the money to Julia, then on to Warsaw and Moscow, is a model of Fred Zinnemann’s ability to fuse suspenseful action with development of character:  we’re anxious for Lily’s mission to succeed but we’re also increasingly absorbed by her blend of fearfulness and stubborn determination (she’s well described at one point as ‘afraid of being afraid’).   Watching a performance of Hamlet in a Moscow theatre, she has a veridical vision of Julia’s murder at the hands of Nazis.  When Lily returns to Western Europe, she learns of Julia’s death and goes to London to supervise the arrangements for her burial.  She tries and fails to make contact with others who knew Julia and to find her young daughter (at their last meeting in Berlin, Julia has told Lily about the child – currently being looked after by a couple in Alsace-Lorraine – and asked her to take her back to America).  The little girl and anyone who knew Julia have vanished into thin air.  Lily returns to Hammett, haunted by the loss of Julia and by her failure to find Julia’s daughter and bring her to safety.

    Alvin Sargent’s screenplay tries to cover an ambitious range of themes and relationships, with varying success.  Pauline Kael was right that the film doesn’t express the explanation of ‘pentimento’; there’s no sense of Lillian Hellman, in old age, now seeing things that she had ‘painted over’.  And how many films (apart from Adaptation) have successfully dramatised the working life of a writer?   Not this one:  the scenes of Hellman – glass of scotch to hand, thinking furiously, pounding the typewriter, ripping sheets out of it and scrunching them up for the waste paper basket – are disappointingly clichéd.  Even if they’re an accurate external portrait of Hellman, Sargent doesn’t give Jane Fonda the material to deliver more than mannerisms.  The relationship with Hammett is unsatisfying too (although it also may be not inaccurate).  We can accept that Lily looks up to him as an older man and a published writer but it’s hard to believe her rather wetly desperate appeals for his approval of her work; or that, when he laconically disparages an early effort, she doesn’t at least want to know more about what’s wrong with it.    Not having read any Hellman, I can’t tell whether the way she’s presented here connects in some way with what she reveals of herself in her writing – it would be unreasonable anyway for the film-makers to rely on the audience’s knowledge of the main character as the means of bringing her to life as an artist.

    But if Sargent, Zinnemann and Fonda miss out on this (important) aspect of Hellman, they succeed in building an increasingly convincing and affecting portrait of a clever woman who is aggressively loyal and very hard on herself.  Fonda’s Lily always seems worried that she’s going to let either Julia or Hammett down; whatever she accomplishes to help or impress them seems to make no difference to her self-doubt.   (And there’s a compelling convergence between these essential qualities of Hellman that she manages to convey and the fact that Fonda is evidently thinking and working hard to ‘get’ the character – whereas Robards as Hammett and Redgrave as Julia seem effortless.)   The Lillian Hellman that Fonda presents is a substantial character largely because of the consistent and powerful sense of unhappiness that she exudes.  Because she’s the centre of the film, the whole piece has an impacted quality but this makes Julia, as a character study, absorbing and unusual.  We’re so used in films to seeing people utterly transformed by decisive events that Lily’s impermeable self-dissatisfaction is very distinctive.  (Jane Fonda’s performance also has a nostalgic aspect now:  it reminded me of the time during the 1970s when I was always excited by the prospect of a new character from her.)

    There’s a quietly convincing connection between Fonda and Susan Jones, who plays the younger Lily; and a more obviously striking one between Lisa Pelikan, as the odd, undauntable adolescent Julia, and Vanessa Redgrave.  Even here, there are moments – as there usually are with Redgrave on screen – when the force of her eccentricity is almost too strong.  The result of this is that she seems unignorably loony; but Redgrave’s height and physical recklessness are extremely effective in this role and her radiance allows us to see what Lily sees in Julia.  The scene between them in the Berlin café is remarkable, both for the tension of the situation, and the tensions and emotional movements created by the two actresses.  Although the Lily-Dash partnership is obscure, Robards is very fine as Hammett:  his brusqueness and impatience with – or with the prospect of – displays of emotion from Lily is amusing at first but gradually becomes suffocating.  It was good seeing Hal Holbrook here shortly after seeing Into the Wild.  I know nothing about Alan Campbell but Holbrook’s interpretation brings welcome quirky humour to the proceedings.

    Meryl Streep, in a dark wig, plays Anne Marie, a bitchy friend of Lily.  Although it’s got a couple of good lines, the role is not that distinctive but the actress in it is.  There have been times since 1977 when Streep has seemed to comprehend a part so quickly that the performance pays gradually diminishing returns but, in this small part, her definition of character is unbeatable and elating.  (It didn’t, however, get Pauline Kael’s attention, which makes it one of the few performances in the first twelve years or so of Meryl Streep’s career that didn’t get a negative, usually unkind notice from PK.)  Fonda and Streep have a short scene together which, again in retrospect (and although they’re hugely different performers), looks like the passing of the baton from the leading American dramatic actress of one generation to her successor in the next.  Streep’s appearance here reminds you that Montgomery Clift (in The Search) and Marlon Brando (in The Men) also both made their cinema debut in films directed by Fred Zinnemann.   As well as introducing this trio to the screen, Zinnemann is also remarkable for, among many other things, some surprising and rewarding casting of established stars (Deborah Kerr in From Here To Eternity, Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story) – and for making a decent Western in High Noon.   I came out feeling thankful to and for him, and the other talents involved in Julia, and Pauline Kael.

    20 January 2009

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