Hiroshima Mon Amour is, by any stretch of the imagination, a quite remarkable and unforgettable piece of cinema. It is not simply that Alain Resnais made a few departures from cinematographic norms and made a slightly unusual film; but rather that he threw the rule book away and took a huge gamble with making something unique and groundbreaking; which has had its admirers and its imitators, but I suspect not its like.
Resnais apparently went to Hiroshima to make documentary about the nuclear holocaust, and the efforts to rebuild the city, during the 1950s. He felt his documentary failed to capture the essence of the place, and came back instead with a this highly idiosyncratic drama, which he believed would communicate more powerfully, and influence his viewers more profoundly than a documentation of the brute facts.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is a film over which vast quantities of ink have been spilt over the near half-century since it was made. Woven into the narrative of this film are war, peace, suffering, loss, death, love, sex, shame, and home - all of which revolve around a central motif of the nature of memory. Without summarising the whole plot; two lovers lie entwined in a Hiroshima hotel room, in the midst of a passionate affair that last only a few days. He is Japanese, she French, and soon she will return to her normal life in Paris. Their bodies appear at one moment to glow with radioactive dust, which seems to symbolise the fact that within the two, within the moment, a past also lives. Although they both seem happy, confident and deeply sensual; the pasts they bring with them into their
encounter loom larger and larger as the film unwinds. At first the film cuts back and forth between the past and the present, until the woman herself, caught up in the pain of memory seem to mentally slip into the past herself. When is it right to forget the pain of the past? The man has lost his family and his city to nuclear war; for her part, the woman has suffered during the occupation of France, where her German lover was exposed, killed and she was ritually humiliated for her liaison with the enemy. In parallel scenes, the woman is seen having her head shaved - as a punishment in France, with the hair falling from the radiated heads of the women of Hiroshima. There seems to be a loyalty to the losses of the past, which deserves to be clung on to; but yet a pain in doing so which deserves to moved on from. As time sluices back and forth in this film, it seems to say that the past is always present no matter what. Intriguingly we learn that the dreadful story of the French woman's first love and loss with the German outsider and her humiliation and breakdown, has only been revealed to this Japanese illicit lover - another forbidden outsider, with whom she seems to recapture the sense of 'before loss'. This is powerful and surprising viewing.
This is of course an enormously sexy film too. This is all the more the case, because it was made in the 1950s before the pornografication of cinema, when the censorial standards of the day meant that directors had to convey the emotion and passion of lovemaking, rather than the lurid shots of body-parts which pass as 'love scenes' today. I only recently binned a (highly recommended) DVD, because the portrayals of sex in it were all unnecessarily, functional and explicit and rather horrible as a result. Hiroshima Mon Amour gets given merely a (12) certificate, yet is a highly erotically charged movie. I am not even sure if the censors gave the 12 for the sexual content or in respect of the distressing scenes from the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. Certainly the juxtaposition of the irradiating of human life, and the rather subtle and beautiful portrayal of the act of love which creates it, is a cinematographic device of dizzying intensity.
The whole mesmerising effect of this film is empowered by a poetic script, delivered almost hypnotically by the two main cast members; as they unearth the secrets of each others' pasts. This is overlayed with a mysterious and engrossing sound-track of wonderfully constructed music, which adds a detached, almost surreal atmosphere, to the already rather unusual proceedings. The two shattered people at the centre of this story, stand in the middle of the still shattered city of Hiroshima. The film then can be seen a polemic against war, both conventional and nuclear. But the man and the woman, also stand in the middle of a city which is in the process of being rebuilt, which in a way they are too. The past lives within them, memory is every bit as real as the physical environment and the here and now; but they are rebuilding, they are works in progress.
There are many, any essays about this film online. Click here to read one I especially appreciated.
On a personal note, regular readers might have wondered why this blog has turned into a film review column! This is for a number of reasons: I am writing other materials including book reviews for a print magazine, which are no longer appearing on here so much. Also, my family are away on holiday this week; and I have been unwell. Catching up with some films, has been a good option this week!