25 September 2011

'Hiroshima mon amour' (1959)

For several months now I've wanted to say something here about the 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour (directed by Alain Resnais from a screenplay by Marguerite Duras). And that mirrors, to some extent, a problem faced by the creators of the film: the desire to speak about something that cannot be addressed directly.

Coming on the heels of her novel Moderato Cantabile (1958), Hiroshima mon amour again revealed Duras to be a powerfully innovative writer with more surprises up her sleeve than her earliest work had suggested. It was Resnais's first full-length film, and--together with Truffaut's 400 Blows (which, like Hiroshima, was first seen at Cannes in 1959) and Resnais's next film, Last Year at Marienbad--is associated with the emergence of the New Wave of French cinema.

But talking about how Hiroshima mon amour is or isn't a New Wave film, feels as wrong as comparable discussions of whether Moderato Cantabile is or isn't an example of le Nouveau roman. And the same thing could be said about efforts to situate Hiroshima in the respective careers of Resnais and Duras.

It's a film that both have spoken of as being born out of an inability to bring the usual tools of understanding, language and art to bear on the violent disruptions of the Second World War. Instead of making a documentary (or near-documentary) on the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945 and its aftermath, they decided to film a love story set in the Hiroshima of 1957.

A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) is finishing work on a 'film about peace' in Hiroshima. The day before she is to return to France, she meets and becomes involved with a Japanese architect (Okada Eiji). When she tells him of everything she's seen in Hiroshima (museum, hospital, people...), he insists: 'You have seen nothing in Hiroshima--nothing.' The problem isn't the difference of nationalities: it's the enormity, the utter incomprehensibility of Hiroshima--and perhaps of war itself--as a phenomenon. The viewer sees, among other things, approximately what the French actress has seen: the Hiroshima of documentaries and tourism. But these images will be joined by others as the film continues....

Although they're both married, the architect asks the actress to stay on with him in Hiroshima. She softens her eventual refusal by telling him her own story of loss in wartime France, a story not even her husband knows. More terrible even than her girlhood loss and subsequent humiliation, however, is her acquired knowledge that the loss of love is not fatal: that we live on and in time forget. This does not mean that we forget the intolerable as a first step to building a new life: the erosion of memory is rather an extension of the ravages of war.

For me, it was time to see the film again, and to return to Duras's published screenplay. Perhaps you'll join me.


Joanna said...

Thank you for this review. I am definitely adding this to my list of films to watch this autumn.

James Hulbert said...

Thank you, Joanna. I thank you for your blog as well, to which I'm now including a link in my roster to the right.... I resisted the impulse to relate 'Hiroshima' to Duras's own silence, then memorable last publications, about her experiences in World War II ('La douleur', the posthumous 'Carnets de guerre')--but you might find them powerful texts (along with her notes in the published screenplay of 'Hiroshima') if you don't already know them. Best, Jascha