The nuclear explosion at Hiroshima is a tragedy so awful that it is difficult to adequately address in film. Alain Resnais, the director of Hiroshima Mon Amour took an oblique approach. In doing so, he made film history.
Resnais was originally commissioned to make a documentary about Hiroshima, but was anxious to avoid the same territory he had previously covered with Night and Fog, a documentary about the Holocaust he’d made four years earlier. Instead he employed the modernist author, and exponent of the experimental Nouveau Roman (new novel), Marguerite Duras to write a screenplay that allowed him to use the bombing as a starting point and then head off into completely different territory.
It is probably useful to see Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) having watched Night and Fog (1955). It will be possible to see what Resnais was keen to avoid in the second film, but also the continuities between the two films. Night and Fog is horrifying, shocking and moving, but also more conventional than Hiroshima Mon Amour.
The origins of Hiroshima Mon Amour as a documentary are most clear in the first fifteen minutes. Archive photographs and footage, and reconstructions show the devastation and horrific effects on the humans caught under the bomb. This is inter-cut with a couple’s naked intertwined arms, presumably in bed. It is the voiceover that really takes the film in another direction.
A man and a woman talk in French. She says she saw the reconstructions, the photographs, and the films of the carnage. He replies “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” Critics say that the mediation and representation of experience is a key theme. It is obvious that it is important not to confuse our understanding of these events with the reality. This is a point that Resnais makes in Night and Fog too, where he says “of these tormented, we can only show you the outer shell.”
This ‘introduction’ ends with the camera revealing a couple talking in bed. They are in Hiroshima, the woman is French and the man Japanese. We never learn their names, although the rest of the film takes a more recognisable narrative form. She (or ‘She’, is played by Emmanuelle Riva) is in Japan to act in a film about peace, he (Eiji Okada) is an architect. They both met the night before and they are both married, she must return to Paris the following day.
The couple spend an afternoon and night together and discuss their lives, Life, memory and many other weighty existential topics. The mood ranges from erotic longing through nostalgic regret to clear-sighted acceptance. At the heart of their conversation, she recalls her first and most profound love affair in France during the Second World War. Her lover was a German soldier and she was subsequently vilified by the people of her town. The affair and its aftermath is seen through flashback.
Resnais said in an interview that, “I intended [Duras] to compose a sort of poem in which the images would act as a counterpoint to the text.” Duras’ written poem works together with Resnais’ visual poetry to make an artistic whole. The images may act as a counterpoint to the text, but both the images and words also have counterpoints themselves.
The similarity and distinctness of the current and past situations pulse through the whole film: the living hand of the Japanese lover recalls the dead hand of the German lover, this love is like/unlike that love, her emotional state in France is a sort of emotional death but her lover actually died. These contradictions continue. Love is contradictory; she says, “You’re destroying me. You’re good for me.” Truth is elusive; she says, “I lie and I tell the truth.” All these counterpoints form a poetic logic that does not easily offer up meaning, at least not unambiguously.
The film is very lovely to look at. There isn’t a scene that isn’t in some way remarkable, beautiful, stark, stylish or otherwise well framed. The two principle characters likewise are gorgeous. She has perfect bone structure and is always simply, but elegantly dressed. Handsome and passionate, He is an engaging presence.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is not a straightforward film. It is a meaty object of dissection for film studies – a great opportunity to discuss modernism, post modernism, the Nouvelle Vague and the Nouveau Roman, not to mention ‘the sublime‘. But what if you’re not familiar with these currents of thought? Hiroshima Mon Amour is still a poem, and one that speaks its evocative truths even if you’re not sitting in a cafe on the Left Bank or a university library.