HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR directed by Alain Resnais (France, 1959)
This is a movie about the fallibility of memory; an intense love story set against the backdrop of the bombing of Hiroshima in Japan.
On August 6th 1945, an atomic bomb killed around 200,000 people. The exact numbers will never be known since the victims and buildings were reduced to ash.
The film begins with graphic and disturbing images of people in the city receiving treatment for terrible injuries. These shots illustrate how it was originally conceived as a sombre yet poetic study in the same vein as Resnais’ Night And Fog (1955) about the Nazi concentration camps.
Perhaps Resnais recognised the limitations of the documentary form and realised that facts tell us relatively little about the human cost of such tragedies. However compassionate a filmmaker’s intentions may be, the risk is that the viewer’s role will be reduced to that of a passive witness to the horror.
The scenes of the Japanese city after the bomb come with a voiceover from a woman whose outsider status makes her observations subjective and unreliable. She claims to know Hiroshima but every assertion is contradicted by a man.
In this way, the perspective of film moves from being a factual account of the post-war city to an impressionistic study of a stylish and unnamed couple. She (Emanuele Riva) is a French actress and he (Eiji Okada) is a Japanese architect.
This is an art movie so, as you might expect, very little happens in narrative terms and there is no clear resolution. The man and the woman make love and talk. They seem to exist in a vacuum of their own design and their conversation goes round in circles.
Their fledgling affair has the potential to become permanent yet they are strangers to each other. She tells him about the time in her home town of Nevers when she was punished for an affair with a German soldier. He tells her he never wants her to ever leave. He is married and she has a life back in Paris so the practical obstacles to the relationship continuing are far from minor.
Apart from being one of the coolest titles in movie history, Hiroshima Mon Amour is widely regarded as a key inspiration for the Nouvelle Vague movement. Notable French auteurs such as Godard and Truffaut have spoken of it in reverent terms.
In Kent Jones’ excellent Criterion essay, the movie is described as being “deliberate, highly constructed, decidedly grave and emotionally devastating”. I would agree with all these points but the last as I found the emotional content more detached than devastating.
Marguerite Duras’ brilliant screenplay emphasises the self-absorbed navel-gazing of the woman and the pragmatic scepticism of the man but when compared to the effects of the atom bomb their problems appear utterly superficial and insignificant.