Hiroshima, Mon Amour: Why and How I Became a Film Scholar and Critic

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A restored version of “Hiroshima, mon amour” will be shown at the N.Y. Film Fest in early October, before being shown theatrically by the estimable Film Forum.

Every film scholar and critic can recall the movies that have influenced him/her, movies that have left such an indelible impact that you want to see them again (and again), write about them, find out more about who made them and under what circumstances.

In my case, there are a dozen or so films, most of which I saw in my boyhood or adolescence, highly impressionable phases in life.  Not all of them are great films or even art films, but separately and jointly they have motivated me to become a film scholar and a film critic.

“Hiroshima, mon amour” is one of those films.  I am grateful to Andrew Sarris, my mentor and role model at Columbia University, for the great insights he provided about Alain Resnais’ 1959 masterpiece in a class on French Cinema in the late 1970s.

“Hiroshima, mon amour” is a thoughtful, contemplative and lyrical chronicle of a French movie actress and a Japanese architect, whose sensual love affair in Hiroshima evokes strange memories of the past and thoughts for the future.

hiroshima_5.jpgIt’s one of a dozen films, alongside other stunning debuts, Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” which launched the French New Wave, a movement that revolutionized world cinema in its innovative strategy of narrative, visual style, and even approach to audiences.

For some, Resnais’ feature, from a screenplay by Marguerite Duras, was the most startling film to emerge from France since WWII. It tells the story of a noted French actress who visits Hiroshima and falls into an affair with a Japanese architect. But the setting evokes painful memories of her first lover, a German soldier who was shot on Liberation Day.

Addressing forgetfulness, the subjective nature of time, and the imminence of death, Resnais developed a unique editing style and narrative structure. Remarkable in theme and structure, “Hiroshima, mon amour” examines the relationship between time and memory in the context of a terrible atrocity. Resnais maintains the counterpoint between past and present by continuously shifting the narrative mode from the objective to the subjective.

hiroshima_4.jpgResnais’ work has been described by some critics as important in the evolution of cinema as a distinct art form as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” Jean-Luc Godard, a contemporary of Resnais, once described it as “Faulkner plus Stravinsky.” Perhaps the film’s most significant quality is that, within the narrative audacity and beauty of its composition, it remains a very moving love story.

A strong anti-war but not a message movie, Resnais’ “Hiroshima, mon Amour” is a formally dense, meticulously structured work that suggested new approaches to narrative cinema. Indeed, with this work, Resnais created a new film vocabulary in treating the dimensions of time and space.

Intense, lyrical, provocative, and mature, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” is an experimental, even revolutionary film, one that despite its challenges to viewers, became an instant international hit, in and outside France.

An impeccable formalist, Resnais is one of the most important and durable directors to emerge from the French New Wave movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Unlike some of his colleagues, he has always relied on collaboration with writers for his films, many of which are adaptations of books and plays.

Resnais is considered to be a genuine auteur by most critics because of his consistent adherence to the distinctive themes of history (personal and collective) and subjective memory. He explored the effects of time and memory on the way that we perceive our past and our present.

hiroshima_3.jpgTaking a philosophical cue from philosopher Bergson and a literary cue from Marcel Proust, Resnais departed from conventional concepts of narrative time by fusing past, present and future into one continuous exploration of identity and nationality (French and Japanese).  “Hiroshima” is one of the few films in which editing is not only crucial but also makes good use of flash forwards, not to mention its complex flashbacks in dealing with reality with memory

Along with Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” Godard’s “Breathless,” Resnais’ first feature, “Hiroshima, mon Amour” became the clarion call of the French New Wave. Over a half a century later, the 1959 film proves that it has retained its emotional power and lyrical impact as a classic.

Resnais made documentaries for the first decade of his career.  He began with a series of art films: Van Gogh (1948), Gauguin (1950), Guernica (1950), Night and Fog (1955), a profoundly disturbing meditation upon the horrors of the concentration camps, The Memory of the World (1956). a study of the books imprisoned in the French National Library

Older than the Cahiers du Cinema critics by nearly a decade, he began his film career not as a critic, but as an editor and director of short films.  Unlike his new wave counterparts, he liked to work from an original script written specifically for the screen by a major novelist (Jean Cayrol, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jorge Semprun)

Close collaboration with writers (novelists and playwrights) and craftsmen is based on his belief that film is essentially a collective art.  Yet Resnais is an avant-garde intellectual, strongly influenced by the philosophy of Henri-Louis Bergson, a French philosopher whose theories of time and creativity had considerable impact on a whole generation.

hiroshima_2.jpgA serious, committed filmmaker, Resnais has been frequently accused of coldness and abstractionism: In his films, objectivity and subjectivity are never distinguished clearly. He has worked slowly, planning his films meticulously well before their shooting. Possessing technical mastery of the medium, he has made films of great visual beauty and intellectual depth

The filmmakers that had influenced him are Griffith, Pudovkin, and Eisenstein, particularly in their use of montage, the manipulation of the space-time continuum. Resnais has said that his work is in the tradition of classical montage, compared to those who adhered to the school of mise-en-scene, advocated by the critic Andre Bazin and his cohorts.

Resnais was approached by a group of French and Japanese producers, who wanted to sponsor a documentary film on the impact of Hiroshima twelve years after the destruction on Aug. 16, 1945. Resnais asked and was granted complete freedom. The only stipulation was that the film would be at least one hour long, feature Japanese and French actors, and contain episodes in Japanese and French.

Reluctant to repeat himself after Night and Fog, Resnais approached novelist Duras to write a script (Francoise Sagan turned down an earlier invitation). A fictional, stylized narrative, based on a sparse, lyrical script, was completed by the summer of 1958

Remarkable in structure, theme, and style, “Hiroshima mon Amour” examines the relationship between time and memory in the context of terrible atrocity. It’s based on an original, even idiosyncratic script by the novelist Marguerite Duras, who became a director in the 1970s.

The tale concerns an illicit love affair between a French actress working in Hiroshima (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect, in the course of which both recall their memories of their past and war in Asia and Europe. Nonjudgmental, at no point does the film explore the ethical problems inherent in the extramarital relationship

Resnais maintains the counterpoint between past and present by continuously shifting narrative modes from the objective to the utterly subjective. In several extraordinary sequences, the film blends dramatic footage of the couple making love with documentary footage of the aftermath of Hiroshima

A great commercial success, the film won the International Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize in Cannes in 1959. In the same year, the Cannes Fesr Grand Prix went to the work of Marcel Camus “Black Orpheus.”

Resnais later said: “I intended to compose a sort of poem in which the images would act as counterpoint to the text.” He therefore preferred to cast stage actors in the lead roles.

Emmanuelle Riva, a successful stage actress, was known for her great voice, elegant elocution, emotional range, and physical beauty.  The Japanese actor Okada was also a handsome and prominent stage and film actor.

hiroshima_1.jpgExteriors were shot in Hiroshima, and interiors in Tokyo in August and September of 1958, before the company moved on to do exteriors at Nevers and interiors in Paris from September to December of that year.

Shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Fest, “for diplomatic reasons,” presumably so as not to offend the U.S, the movie shared with the Venezuelan film “Araya” (1958) the International Film Critics Award. It also received the Film Writers Award, presented for the first time. The movie also shared a Prix Melies with Truffaut’s stunning debut, “The 400 Blows.”

The film was successful and universally praised, including the U.S. It received the N.Y. Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Picture. Marguerite Duras was nominated for an Oscar for story and screenplay written directly for the screen (she didn’t win)

Resnais made radical departures in direction through the introduction of subliminal flash cuts. For example, in the morning, the actress sees her Japanese lover’s hand quivering slightly in his sleep. Suddenly, there is a quick cut to a 4-second shot of a dying soldier, lying elsewhere, hand extended and jerking in a similar manner. This is followed by a cut to her distressed face, then to the lover who wakes up

“Hiroshima” makes cinematic use of the Proustian device of recapturing the past in a fragmentarily mode through the operation of involuntary memory by which an object or bodily attitude in the present can accidentally trigger off a recall of past feelings or incidents associated with it.

No explanation is provided at the time, and there are no traditional dissolves to cue us that this is a flashback. The audience must pay undivided attention to the flow of imagery. The direct cut to past experience has a shock value and has often been imitated

In the heroine’s flashback sequence at Nevers, Resnais daringly uses a subjective order of images, prompted by her emotional state, rather than a chronological order of events. Thus, we see her in the cellar before the scene of her head being shaved after the soldier’s death

The film is replete of beautiful tracking shots, especially those employed in the sequence where the heroine wanders the streets of Hiroshima while recalling Nevers. There is a marvelous use of parallel montage (shot at identical speed by the separate Japanese and French photographers who didn’t know the others’ work). Views of the Japanese city are gracefully intercut with those of the French city to create the visual impression of the unity of past and present in her mind

A striking use of soundtrack achieved effect of simultaneity. Japanese music and sounds underscore the shots of Nevers, and musical motifs for Nevers are heard in the Hiroshima streets. Giovanni Fuska has produced a remarkable and original and atmospheric score. Georges Delerue contributed a haunting waltz in the café scene

Resnais described the jolting opening shots of the couple as sort of dream, a voice coming from the unconscious, which is at one and the same time that of the authors and that of the spectators, which will only later become that of the principal characters: “It is a kind of great advancing tracking shot into the clouds of the unconscious to reach the two characters, a way of painting a sensory atmosphere which perhaps allows us, afterwards, to give this love story a new resonance.”

The Japanese man’s repeated denial of what she “saw” in Hiroshima indicates that the full meaning of the atomic catastrophe is beyond the ability of the visitor’s intellect to grasp by merely visiting a museum and, by implication, that the whole phenomenon of Hiroshima can’t be captured by filmmaking attempting a documentary. Duras later commented: “All one can do is talk about the impossibility of talking about Hiroshima.”

The dropping of the atom bomb and the personal tragedy at Nevers are not meant to be considered equal in significance. Resnais explained: “We contrast the immense, monstrous, incredible aspect of Hiroshima with the tiny, little story of Nevers, which to us is reflected through Hiroshima as the glimmer of a candle as magnified and reversed by a lens.” Hiroshima and Nevers can only be evaluated on the level of the macrocosmic with the microcosmic, a tragedy for mankind linked tentatively to an individual’s agony in wartime.

The film’s central theme is that of memory and forgetfulness. It first appears as a leitmotif announced and repeated in the hypnotic prologue. All experiences in time are subject to oblivion, even those which seem unforgettable, as Hiroshima’s destruction. Forgetting is not only inevitable but necessary for human survival.

The French girl inflicts pain on herself in the cellar in Nevers in order to keep alive the wounds of love, but ultimately she says, “I tremble at the thought of having forgotten so much love.” Resnais suggests that, “If one does not forget, one can neither live nor act.” After leaving the café, realizing that their affair is doomed as was her first love, she tells her lover to please go away, that they will probably die without seeing each other again. The shot effectively expresses their pending separation

Resnais shows real concern that the lesson of Hiroshima’s destruction must never be lost to the world. The climactic revelation occurs in her hotel room, when she states, “Hiroshima, Hiroshima. That’s your name.” To which he can only respond by saying, “That’s my name, yes. Your name is Nevers. Nevers-in-France.” The actress and the architect will in time forget each other, but Nevers and Hiroshima will remain as symbols of love.

Despite serving symbolic functions, the two characters are complex, real, and individualistic, though it’s ambiguous to what extent they can change at this juncture of their lives. Emmanuelle Riva gives an astonishing performance in her screen debut. Very much her match, Eiji Okada is convincing and effective as her lover. Together they enact a poignant love story that serves as a visual and metaphorical meditation between the past and the present,

One of the films that launched the French New Wave, “Hiroshima, mon amour” received the International Critics Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film festival.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 1

Story and Screenplay (Original): Marguerite Duras

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The Oscar went to Billy Wilder and I.A. L. Diamond for “The Apartment,” which also won Best Picture and Best Director.

 

Credits

French film with English subtitles

Running Time: 88 minutes