Reflections on seeing Hiroshima Mon Amour   Leave a comment

Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) has been one of those films that, as a cinephile, I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t seen—until my first viewing a few nights ago. It’s considered a landmark of cinema, one of the first films in the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) and a work that continues to wield a great influence.

I’ve neglected it entirely out of what I’m finally recognizing was a very misplaced disregard for the French New Wave. To make a long story short, a negative reaction to Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), considered perhaps the quintessential FNW film, made me think I didn’t like the movement—despite enjoying a wide assortment of non-Godard FNW movies I have seen over the years (and even appreciating some aspects of Breathless). Surely if one didn’t care for le grand film de La Nouvelle Vague, one didn’t care for the movement as a whole? Well, I’m finally learning that isn’t at all an accurate conclusion (and perhaps it’s time I reconsidered Breathless too).

So at last I watched the beautiful, poetic, haunting Hiroshima and found it well worth the wait. The cinematography, the language in Marguerite Duras’s screenplay, and​ Giovanni Fusco’s surprising score are all remarkable, and the story is quite moving and invites one’s own reflection. I’m sure repeat viewings will reward all the more.

And I kept thinking of one of my favorite films by the Spanish Surrealist Luis Buñuel, That Obscure Object Of Desire (1977). Each film chronicles a relationship between a man and a woman (albeit entirely different relationships), and bombs play an important side role in each. In Buñuel’s film, terrorists are wreaking havoc in Europe, and every once in a while, a bomb goes off with no warning.

In Hiroshima, the bomb’s destruction is 14 years past, still weighing heavily on the protagonists and the citizens who surround them. The woman in the film (played by Emmanuelle Riva) is an actress who has come to Japan to make a movie “about peace.” And within this film-within-the-film, a nuclear disarmament protest takes place—a recreation of an action that has happened and will happen again. The actress predicts to her lover (Eiji Okada) that more bombs will fall. The Bomb hangs over the future as well as the past.

That Obscure Object is about lust, frustration, manipulation, and the foolishness and vanity of sexual obsession; the threat of destruction in the unexpectedness of the terrorists’ bombs seems to have no effect on the characters’ thoughts or actions. But Hiroshima is about how the memory (and perhaps imagination) of past violence dominates the present and future of the characters—especially when it comes to love. I won’t tell you the actress’s history in wartime occupied France: her recounting of it is a significant portion of the plot, and affects her new relationship. And naturally, the citizens of Hiroshima must deal every day—every minute—with the consequences of the atomic bomb. There is no escaping the War for these characters—nor will there ever be.

The film begins with the woman poetically describing her “memories” of Hiroshima in the few days she has been there, while the screen juxtaposes the lovers’ intertwined bodies with the burned bodies of the bomb’s victims. And as I watched this montage, I thought about how we in the west think of Hiroshima. The film considers the bombing of Hiroshima an unquestionable horror—which is not an attitude I’ve observed in the United States, at least in my lifetime. We seem to regard it as at worst a “necessary evil,” and in some cases a heroic act. How sad that we have created a world in which we believe evil to be necessary, much less heroic. I fear that such thinking assures that the actress’s prediction is too accurate.

***

How could I watch a classic film about memory without thinking back on the experience of watching movies with my father? Despite being a college film major and continuing to study the subject in numerous ways for the rest of my life, I attribute the majority of what I know about cinema to the movies my dad showed me in my teenage years. He started me on John Ford westerns, Woody Allen comedies, and Hitchcock thrillers, and then moved me onto Lawrence Olivier’s Shakespeare films, Ingmar Bergman’s theological explorations, and Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai adventures. All of this happened with VHS tapes: he’d borrow them from the library and then make copies for later viewing with a two-deck setup. I can still see in my mind the title Hiroshima Mon Amour in his handwriting on a VHS label, but it’s one we never got around to watching together. Wish I could call you up and let you know I saw another of your recommendations, Dad.

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