“Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” French, November 26, 2022 (1959), DVD. Another great film I’ve always meant to see. Yeah, I know. I should have seen it years ago. Anyway, Bronwen came back from Japan two weeks ago and decided she wanted to watch this again. She saw it back in 1975 or ’76 at the New Community Cinema in Huntington when they were showing films on a bed sheet. This film is just as meaningful now as it was when, crafted and directed by Alain Resnais (his first feature film!) with dialogue written by Marguerite Duras, it exploded on the screen as part of the French New Wave.
And the backstory on this remarkable film is as fascinating as the film. For this reason, interviews with Resnais and Emmanuelle Riva (this was her first major film role!) make the DVD the medium for viewing this Criterion release, although I suspect their streaming service includes these features as well. The film was a joint French/Japanese production and was originally slated to be a documentary about the bomb. It’s not surprising that Argos and Pathe turned to Renais to make this documentary following his much praised 1956 short “Night and Fog” about the Holocaust. But he concluded he had nothing to add or even match the existing documentaries. Yet the bomb and Hiroshima remained a constant in his life. Instead, he and Duras crafted a naturalistic and poetic film about love in the shadow of the bomb where Hiroshima is both the bomb’s tragic victim and a living place and the name of love. We all still live in the shadow of the bomb, as recent events in Ukraine and East Asia (North Korea) have brought home. Those events make “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” as pertinent today as it was in 1959.
Riva is brilliant as “Elle,” her, the film’s unnamed female protagonist. She plays a French actress, married with children, in Hiroshima to make a film about the bomb and continuing antiwar activities. On her penultimate night in Hiroshima, Elle meets a married Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) “Lui” or him. His French, she notes, is perfect. (Okada actually learned all his line phonetically and spoke no French.)
What follows is an encounter that, in its intensity in the shadow of death and the bomb, leads her to confront her memories of her youth and transgressive love during World War II. Indeed, it forces or lets her confront memory itself. Flashbacks and her internal monologues mix with dialogue reflecting the past, it’s meaning, and their new connection. Passionate love pits present and future against the past as lovers entwine in the ashes of the bomb.
It is, to say the least, a remarkable poetic film as it speaks to a lived affair. This is, Elle notes, her first affair but then, she says, she is a “woman of dubious morals.” Yet she remains a sympathetic protagonist, struggling with desire, memory, and obligation.
It is both a great pain and pleasure to see such a profound vision of life in our culture, even as our society works to obscure the fact that we always stand on the edge of annihilation.