In Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the 1959 French New Wave classic, Marguerite Duras’ poetic dialogue complements the director Alain Resnais’s clear interest in the issues of love, war, loss, and forgetfulness. This film, the director’s feature debut, grew out of a commission for a documentary about the atomic bomb. Resnais, however, experienced difficulty in completing the project, steering it in another direction to produce this classical black-and-white love story. With its sensitive subject, this is both an emotionally charged and a thoughtfully crafted depiction of a recovering postwar world that carries the freight of its horrific past.
The film centers on a French actress (Emmanuella Riva) filming an anti-war movie in Hiroshima and her two-day affair with a married Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). Even though it is structured as a dialogue, the film follows the woman’s perspective on the recent events in Hiroshima and later brings the audience deeper into her psyche with a flashback to her past in France. The man’s role is thus secondary, serving as a counterpoint to her narration — someone who challenges her, who asks questions, and steers the story, but rarely someone who actively dominates the dialogue. In addition, the characters importantly remain unnamed. Thus, their story is generalized; it could be a story about nearly anyone — a universally relatable experience of love and loss.
In the opening scene of the movie, Resnais teases the audience’s sense of compassion by juxtaposing the two lovers’ sensual embrace with horrific footage of the bombing of Hiroshima, which also puts in conversation the documentary and the fictional aspects of the story. This is accompanied by the woman’s enumeration of the things she has seen in Hiroshima, things that carry a reminder of the painful past. Her partner responds by repeatedly denying what she says. While the man rejects the evidence of destruction in Hiroshima, he encourages the woman to relate something about her own past. Suffering, as seen in the movie, is therefore a shared experience, both in the personal and the public sense; there is a noticeable connection drawn between the multitude of depersonalized victims of mass destruction and the individual misery of the main female character, both of which belong in the past and are revisited in the present. While the prologue asserts death and love as fundamental and continuous parts of the human existence, it quickly gives way to the lovers’ encounter, which remains in the foreground for the remainder of the movie. Throughout, Resnais and Duras masterfully explore the dualities that make up the human existence: war and peace, man and woman, life and death, public and private, experience and detachment, memory and forgetfulness.
To its credit, the film does not downplay just how difficult it is to understand or sympathize with loss and suffering of such magnitude. This is related through the characters’ differing attitude toward the events. The Japanese architect, who was away fighting in the army when the bombings occurred, seems more detached from Hiroshima’s pains than the French actress, whose personal drama makes her more attuned to the postwar reality. We see this when he challenges her to tell the story of her past. Thus, the film transitions into the story of the woman’s tragic first love with a German soldier during WWII and her consequent ostracism from her hometown of Nevers. Perhaps prompted by her experience in Hiroshima, the actress chooses the man as the first person with whom to share her most intimate thoughts and feelings about her past.
Time in Hiroshima, Mon Amour is a sensitive concept, as different eras are constantly cross-referenced and past and present are inextricably intertwined. The relationship between memory and time is conveyed through the woman’s almost frantic need to assert what she has witnessed in Hiroshima. At the same time, the fragmentary nature of time in the film conveys the temporal and the spacial distance between France of the past and Hiroshima of the present in order to talk not only about the absoluteness of loss and suffering but also about the importance of remembrance. Seeing both of these themes dramatized urges one to be mindful of the devastating experiences of WWII and highlights the individual act of remembering one’s past as an important component of safeguarding the greater burden of cultural memory against oblivion.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour is playing now through November 4th at Film Forum in a new 4K restoration directly from its sold out screening at the New York Film Festival.