“Hi-ro-shi-ma. That’s your name.” “That’s my name. Yes. Your name is Nevers. Ne-vers in France.”
There is much to discuss about Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour and much of it depends on subjective thought and critical perspective but one thing that could be said with fair certainty is that Hiroshima is a truly modern film in its entirety; from its content to its form and even its music. Since its 1959 release, the film has barely aged. It’s poetic structure, tragic themes and innovative use of non-linear storytelling is refreshing to this day almost 50 years later. But how do we classify Hiroshima Mon Amour? In its historical context, it’s a post-war classic, artistically it’s a gem of French cinema and for film historians, Hiroshima Mon Amour is considered as the catalyst for the Nouvelle Vague movement in France. French director Eric Rohmer once said “I think that in a few years, in ten, twenty, or thirty years, we will know whether Hiroshima Mon Amour was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema.” (1)
Resnais, who is a pre-Nouvelle Vague filmmaker is often linked to the French movement as a father figure along with other earlier French filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville and Robert Bresson. But as opposed to the French New Wave, Resnais is not upbeat and spontaneous instead he is nostalgic, carefully constructing a classic symphony that is both distressing and poignant. He is direct and clear and altogether abstract and lyrical. Hiroshima Mon Amour could very well be a story of love, even if the film carries the devastation of history on its shoulders.
The film opens with a woman’s voice over images of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in central Hiroshima. The poetic narration of the woman’s voice is juxtaposed to powerful images of the burned victims and genetically deformed children due to radiation poisoning from the atomic bombing, all of these images appear in the museum. This contrast is violently emotional. The image of ashes raining on the lover’s embrace is beautiful and horrific. The film consists of mostly a conversation or a series of conversations between two lovers, a French actress known simply as Her and a Japanese architect known as Him. It is understood that they had recently met in Hiroshima, Japan and had begun an affair that is now at its end. The film takes place in this final adieu between Him and Her. While she was in Hiroshima to make a “film about peace” (“What else can you make in Hiroshima?”) he was back from Paris. They speak French. They either have several conversations or they have one long conversation. It’s unclear. The film is purposely open to multiple interpretations. The film goes back and forth in time. It mixes cinema verité style documentary footage of the 1949 atomic bombing of the city of Hiroshima.
Hiroshima Mon Amour mixes historical trauma with personal trauma in a poetic manner. The film deals heavily with memory and forgetfulness. Memory as a way to deal with trauma and forgetfulness as consequence of a national and personal tragedy. Both of His and Her personal trauma is directly linked to the uprising of Fascism and World War II. When she was young she was punished and humiliated for having a love affair with a German soldier and he was in the Japanese army but was elsewhere but his family was in Hiroshima during the 1945 bombing. He rejects her comparison of both sufferings yet he continues to pursue her.
The wonderful script by Resnais’ collaborator and French writer Marguerite Duras adds powerful friction to the image. This contrast between the beautiful text and the horrible image reflects upon the duality of love and hatred: his and her love against the hatred of the past and the horrors of memory.
As a film, it is a wonderful example of how film medium can be used as a way to preserve memory and a way to reflect a nation’s cultural conscience. It is not just an intercontinental medium but it is an art form that is truly modern. I personally like to think all films are about film in some way or another. Cinematic fiction is in itself a very self-aware medium. In Hiroshima Mon Amour we have a very real and major historical tragedy that is perfectly fitted into a very small intimate story of two lovers. This can only be achieved in film. When asked to write about a film viewed in my Film and Literature class I chose Hiroshima Mon Amour because it can be viewed as a film as a singularity or as cinema as a whole. Films like these are important because they constantly remind us never to forget. Films like these remind us of tragedy, mistakes and human suffering to perhaps look into the future. The past is gone but it is eternally immortalized as light being spilled on a screen to make sure we learn what we’ve done and where we were so that we can look at what we’re doing and where we’re going.
“Listen to me. I know something else. It will begin all over again. Two hundred thousand dead. Eighty thousand wounded. In nine seconds. These figures are official. It will begin all over again. It will be ten thousand degrees on the earth. Ten thousand suns, they will say. The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. A whole city will be raised from the earth and fall back in ashes….”
(1) Kent Jones, “Time Indefinite”, essay for the Criterion Collection DVD release