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