Alain Resnais’s 1959 black and white film Hiroshima Mon Amour is the third film of his that I’ve seen, after 1955’s mediocre documentary, Night And Fog, and 1961’s great and brilliant Last Year In Marienbad, and, unsurprisingly, the film lands somewhere in the middle, qualitatively. That said, it’s much closer to the later film, for only the somewhat melodramatic portrayal of its lead female character keeps it from reaching Last Year In Marienbad’s heights. And, in many ways, Hiroshima Mon Amour reaches dramatic and creative heights the later film cannot. Unfortunately, it also succumbs to weakness that the hermetic later film does not expose.
The 90 minute long film starts off in a documentary like format. After opening credit sequences, and images of two entwined human bodies covered in what appears to be dust, then water, we hear the French speaking voices of a Japanese man (Eiji Okada, from Woman In The Dunes and The Face Of Another) and a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva). Throughout the film they are never named (not even as He or She, as often claimed), as are not the characters in Last Year In Marienbad. As the film goes on, the viewer learns that both are married, and that she is a French actress in Hiroshima to shoot an anti-nuclear peace film, while he is a local architect whose wife is away. But after the opening, the first 15 or so minutes are spent in a contrapuntal movement between the two voices arguing over the reality of sights seen in Hiroshima, while images of the city now, and after the atomic bomb blast, are shown. This is an interesting tack, and one which can easily go awry (see Carol Reed’s mind numbing attempt at something similar, a few years later with The Agony And The Ecstasy).
When this sequence ends, the film follows the two lovers as they wake up and get ready for the day. He wants to continue their affair, but she is resistant. Early on, a flashback is seen of the woman standing over a dead Nazi soldier. Their discourse leads them into the day, out of her hotel room, and they part, with her claiming to want nothing more to do with him. The narrative resumes, at the filming of the peace movie, when he encounters her relaxing under a tree, petting a cat. They make their way through the filming and a peace march, and continue to speak of love and memory after they arrive at his home. There, they again have sex. She claims to be leaving in a few hours, to fly back to France. He pursues her, and she opens up about her past, and a love affair when she was 18. It was in occupied France, under the Nazis, and her lover was a German soldier (Bernard Fresson) who promised to marry her and take her to Bavaria. One day, she finds he has been shot dead, and stays with his dead body for over a day. Due to resentment, her family hides her in their cellar, cuts her hair, and imprisons her till war’s end, when she is 20. As she tells he lover this tale, she seems to drift into revery, conflating the German with the Japanese, until he slaps her back to reality and out of her melancholy.
He is thrilled when she tells him that he is the only person she has ever told about the German soldier in the years since. They continue on in the night until he takes her back to her hotel. Restless, she has a breakdown, and wanders the streets until she ends back outside the café where she and her lover had been talking. He seems to have been waiting for her return. They walk on, and one wonders if she may not stay in Hiroshima and forsake her family. They enter a bar separately (The Casablanca- a parody of the melodramatic romance in the film of the same name), and he watches a younger Japanese man hit on her in English, as the dawn breaks. They end up back at her hotel room, with him fully accepting his role as the living, breathing symbol of Hiroshima, and according her the same, as living, breathing symbol of the small French town where she was born, and had her love affair with the German. He says she is Nevers, in France.
We learn far more about the woman in the film, and, consequently, this makes the man the far more interesting figure. We know very little of him: he is a married architect with a beautiful wife. He served in the Japanese Army during the war, while his family was in town during the atomic blast. By contrast, we know, and see (via flashbacks) much of her life (or her memory of it). And while Riva the actress does a fine job, it is a fine job playing a way too melodramatic character, and a typical ‘artsy babe’ type- the character is an actress, after all. The conflation of her personal pain with that of an atomic bombing is way overdone, and this is reflected in how the character is written far more symbolically than really, which contrasts greatly with the realism and symbolism of the Japanese man being perfectly balanced. This minor flaw in the screenplay falls squarely on the shoulders of Resnais and screenwriter Marguerite Duras. Otherwise, all the other technical aspects of the film are first rate, especially considering the angles used in the cinematography required two different cinematographers, in France and Japan (Sacha Vierny and Michio Takahashi). The film’s scoring, by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco, is spare, but effective, often letting diegetic music rule.
The DVD, by The Criterion Collection, is a good package. The film is finely restored, shown in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and from a good transfer to begin with, there are interviews with Resnais and star Riva (from the time of the film’s release, and the release of the DVD over forty years later). There are screenplay annotations from Duras, an isolated music and effects track, a 32 page insert booklet that has some essays and a pretentiously awful dwritten discourse on the film from the noted Cahiers Du Cinema frauds Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer, among others. Then there is the audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie. And while not terrible, it is not good either. Cowie tends to be didactic, formulaic, stiffly reading from a script, and almost never scene specific. It’s as if the film behind him matters not. And this is his usual style as I’ve heard a number of commentaries from him, over the years, and can only wonder how he still gets these gigs offered to him. He often compares scenes in the film to Ingmar Bergman films, and this is because Cowie has done commentaries on a number of Bergman films, as well as Robert Bresson’s The Diary Of A Country Priest, but often the comparison is strained. With Persona it’s apt. With other Bergman films not as apt as comparisons to Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte would be, a film which also follows an alienated couple over the course of a 24 hour period, or even the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara, which ramp up the symbolism without forfeiting real characterization. Perhaps the lone thing of interest Cowie imparts is that some of the images that look like newsreel are really Japanese recreations of the Hiroshima bombing, done for later films. A major downside to the DVD, though, is a) the lack of an English dubbed track (since many of Okada’s French lines had to be dubbed in later, and one can see the disconnect between mouth and sound anyway, even the usual flawed reasons for eschewing dubbing are inapplicable), and b) Criterion’s continued insistence on using the very difficult to read white only subtitles on black and white films. A truly terrible decision by the company.
Hiroshima Mon Amour has been a highly influential film, even as it was clearly influenced by the films of Orson Welles, and even some B sci fi films. It uses repetitive dialogue, recurring motifs, and visual repetons throughout, and is quite Bergman-like in that dialogue, its close-ups, and the way characters look away from each other. But, many critics, naturally, have taken the lazy way out in their criticism, usually falling back upon the oft repeated claims from the Cahiers crowd that the film follows the pattern of a symphony, or is a….you guessed it: a tone poem, without even knowing what the term means. But the film is far less a piece of visual music than it is a visual piece of skaldic poetry, wherein the scenes act as stanzas that have refrains of past moments, and where much of the symbolism acts as kenning does in skaldic poetry- using familiar words in new ways as a substitute for familiar images. This technical aspect of the film is among its strongest points, whereas the film is at its weakest in its portrayal of the characters and the brief relationship. Instead of naturalistic dialogue, wherein depths are revealed via the accidental poesy of banalities arranged in interesting ways, the characters speak almost directly in symbolic and self-conscious ways. They leave the subtext of the film’s art nakedly exposed, and this artifice acts against an emotional connection to the characters. In the later, and more daring, Last Year In Marienbad, this is not a problem because the action seems to take place in a hermetic, unreal place. This is not so in Hiroshima Mon Amour. Hence, the symbolic nature of the characters stands in far greater contrast to their mis-en-scene then they do in the later film. Also, the constant repetition of themes, hammering- rather than deftly applying them, also detracts from the film, making its worst moments feel not only didactic, but pedantic. But, overall, these- and the overreach of the female characterization- are minor flaws, and serve only to keep the film from unadulterated greatness. But, no one ever claimed near-greatness was bad. Many bad critics, however, have claimed the film has no real narrative, but, as with similar claims for 2001: A Space Odyssey, these critics mistake a different sort of narrative for its lack.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is an excellent film (miles above its two New Wave counterparts from the same year of release- -François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless), as a work of the cinematic arts, and as a chart of the human psyche’s difficulties in dealing with memory. Many have claimed the film is, indeed, about memory, but it’s not. The woman, and, to a lesser extent, the man, have no problems with their memories. They do, however, seem to have reluctance (on his part) and dread (on her part) in dealing with certain memories they possess, and this is no mere semantic difference, but key to understanding the film’s portrayal of its characters, especially in context with the larger context of the bombing of Hiroshima hovering about, within, and without, the film. No, it does not do this flawlessly, but it does do so well enough to be heartily recommended, for it is a film, whether you emotionally like or dislike it, you will intellectually be glad to have seen and experienced. I am.