Love in the Time of Amnesia
Hiroshima mon amour by Alain Resnais
The New York Film Forum last week screened the newly restored digital version of the daring 1959 fictional film debut of Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour. It’s hard to believe that a 55-year old film was an official selection of this year’s New York Film Festival, but during that half century, the film has been more talked about than seen.
Rialto Pictures has made a new 4K restoration, and the film is scheduled for a national run (opening October 24 in San Diego; October 31 in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Denver, November 14 in Philadelphia; November 28 in Santa Fe and December 5 in Portland, with additional dates in other places). It is worth seeing this “file” (a term I suppose is more accurate than “print”; for that matter “film” itself is an anachronism) and especially in a darkened theater on a screen where the grey tone palette works better than from a television or computer screen. But mainly you should see it in a theater because it is one of a handful of films that define cinema as an art form and therefore deserves more formal attention than a home entertainment unit requires.
Cinema, especially the dominant form, American commercial movies, has become so routinized that seeing it used for something other than a vehicle for stars, who are there mainly for close face shots or action sequences, is somewhat jarring. Movies did not start out that way, and some especially thoughtful film makers have suggested other uses, but commercial reality, the conservative bias of financiers or some other causes seem to cause the form to constantly revert to this “normal.” Resnais several times offered an alternative to this normal, the first time being Hiroshima mon amour. Resnais, however, was not a likely candidate for so doing and the project, as an innovative art film came about almost as an afterthought. Let’s first look at what the movie is.
Hiroshima mon amour is unabashedly a formal art film which announced its experimental techniques explicitly and dared the audience to rebel against the new language it was trying to form. It largely escaped popular rejection, I suspect because its foreboding background (the atomic devastation of a Japanese city) persuaded much of the public against seeing it at all. The film, however, is not really about (or, maybe better stated, not really much about) the horrors of August 6, 1945. Indeed, it is much easier to understand that fact now, half a century later. This is because in 1959 atomic (and by then thermonuclear) destruction was not only a real possibility, it was something that everyone lived with as best he could. Having lived through that era, I almost said I can remember the fear. But of course this movie is about how we never remember anything. Even those things that seem so centrally important, so key to all of human existence, will pass away from our consciousness as we adjust to the newest sensations. Those not alive in 1959 will probably have a hard time believing that we who were actually contemplated nuclear annihilation all the time. Not only did we know that our leaders and enemies held human survival no higher than about 4 on a list of things they felt important, but we also knew that we were helpless to do anything about it.
But here we are now, a half century later. The possibility of nuclear annihilation is not appreciably decreased; perhaps it has increased since no one seems to be worried about it. Yet the reason that no one seems worried about it is because we simply could not continue to remember what it was like. That is the central premise of the film: we are unable to remember. We are unable to remember, try as we might, the things important to the planet, our species, ourselves. It doesn’t matter about what. In Hiroshima, there was something that happened that was so breath-taking, so horrible, so contingent, so unlikely, that it should give us all pause to think. Here is one of the many things that in an instant that day happened that August 6: A small woman was sitting on the steps of a bank, an ordinary bank, 850 feet from the bomb. Within .0001 second, she was incinerated with heat of 1,700° C and left nothing but her shadow (the shadow of the oxidized organic matter that comprised her) on the inorganic rock stairs.
Even that shadow, however, began to fade. To preserve it, the area was first enclosed in fence and then in glass, but eventually the bank was torn down and the stones donated to the Hiroshima Peace Museum in 1971. It is this incident that the movie, briefly, refers to with the visual of the fenced off stones and the oblique reference by SHE:
“I wanted to have an inconsolable memory, a memory of shadows and stone. For my part, I struggled with all my might, every day, against the horror of no longer understanding at all the reason for remembering. Like you, I forgot.”
The first 20 minutes of the film is a set piece. It is designed to explain the theme—forgetting. It is much like an extended version of the prologues of Elizabethan plays or the prolegomena of complex philosophical arguments or the introductory chorus of a Greek tragedy. It focuses on the Hiroshima devastation as an event that ought to be remembered. And SHE (played by Emmanuelle Riva, most recently an Oscar nominee, at age 84, for her role in Michael Haneke’s Amour) is the one insisting on the need to remember. She describes the hospital, the museum, the relics, the consequences and the statistics, all to show that we must never forget. HE (played by Eiji Okada, probably best known to Americans for playing opposite Marlon Brando in The Ugly American), her new one-off lover, denies all of her facts and even her ability to recall (“You did not see the hospital in Hiroshima. You saw nothing in Hiroshima.” “You made it all up.” “No, you don’t have a memory”). The task of maintaining memory has been handed over to museums and strangely upbeat tour directors. Perhaps they exist so we can dispense with the need to remember, so we can put them somewhere, not quite forgotten, but so that we don’t have to have them present at all times.
This extended introduction has a number of interesting techniques but before we look at them, consider that the introduction is designed not to set us up for an examination of what happened in Hiroshima in 1945, but what happened there in 1957 (the fictional “present” according to the scenario by Marguerite Duras) and how that evoked another repressed memory that took place in Nevers, France in 1944 and 1945. What the movie is about is how SHE deals with a central pain in her own life—the memory of a love once had and then lost, in an instant, and the knowledge that losing the pain means losing that love, and even more, that all love ever will always be lost and forgotten.
The visual composition of the film is likewise broken in two parts: the introductory section and the story proper. The introduction is made up of scenes of present-day (i.e., 1957) Hiroshima, archival footage of the aftermath of the bomb and pseudo-documentary said to have been made by the museum to portray what happened. SHE assures us that “[t]he films [by the museum] have been made as authentically as possible. The illusion, it’s quite simple, the illusion is so perfect that the tourists cry. One can always scoff, but what else can a tourist do, really, but cry?”
Resnais quite skillfully cuts the scenes of the “documentary” introduction. The montage is a visual poem just as much as the narration by SHE is a literary one. The scenes quite seamlessly follow, and comment on, the narration without drawing attention to themselves. The use of the “pseudo documentary” footage raises the question (which SHE alludes to) of the purpose of re-enactments and “movie history.” The scenes have a visual logic that makes one follow almost inevitably, ineluctably, from the last. Although some of the pictures of the victims are quite shocking, the visual pacing is so modulated that rather than exploitative they appear reverential or at least contemplative. All of this you would have expected, because Resnais at the time was an experienced documentary film maker. Indeed, the project when originally proposed to Resnais was conceived of as a documentary. Strangely enough, given that the film became a meditation on how we need markers to preserve our memory and the premise that the event at Hiroshima is paradigmatic subject for memorial, Resnais concluded he could not make a compelling documentary. So he sought for a screenwriter to make a fictional screenplay. He was eventually led to Marguerite Duras. Duras was in her mid-40s, had published novels for 15 years but only recently began experimenting with narrative form with the publication of her very popular novel Moderato Cantabile. That novel bears some similarities with her screenplay for Hiroshima, mon Amour (as well as her approach for her next several novels): The story arises from a “banal” situation, the development proceeds with a formal pace, characters go nameless, dialogue is often stylized and declamatory.
Unlike other French directors of the New Wave, Resnais did not act the role of the auteur, possibly because he had never directed a feature film before. Instead he followed somewhat slavishly the scenario provided by Duras. Resnais evidently saw his role as simply bringing about the visual realization of Duras’s conception. Resnais was so adverse to making any change to the text that when Duras suggests that he chose among alternative dialogues, Resnais refused to decide and instead used all the alternatives. The scenario by Duras even has detailed descriptions of the appearance and personalities of the two main characters, almost like casting direction, and so casting and to some extent directing was taken from Resnais.
Thus in some sense the film is Duras’s work even more so than the 1971 film version of Macbeth was a work of Shakespeare (because Polanski was more than willing to tamper with the text). This view shows us how to consider the work: It is first and foremost a literary work. The introduction is a lyrical exordium by SHE in which she attempts to fix in her memory the things she needs to remember of Hiroshima. HE keeps interrupting to note that there is nothing to remember, but she continues enumerating until she begins musing on forgetting as a phenomenon. This leads her naturally to the conclusion that all of this will happen again. It is said with neither trepidation nor anguish, just matter-of-factly. And the consequences don’t have to be spelled out. Only a reference is made to the children who will once again die.
But then the ode on the desolation of Hiroshima abruptly ends, and the introduction moves on to the main story. This is how Duras directs that transition in her screenplay:
“(The incantatory tone ceases. The streets of Hiroshima, more streets. Bridges. Covered lanes. Streets. Suburbs. Railroad tracks. Suburbs. Universal banality.)
“SHE: . . . I meet you.
“I remember you.
“Who are you?
“You destroy me.
“You’re so good for me.”
And so begins the story proper, which Duras in her synopsis says is a “banal tale, one that happens thousands of times every day. The Japanese is married, has children. So is the French woman, who also has two children. Theirs is a one night affair.”
The scene cuts to a darkened hotel room where SHE and HE are lying in an embrace. (There is never mention of the characters’ names.) SHE admires his beautiful skin, and HE begins laughing “ecstatically” (as Duras puts it). There is no self-consciousness when they laugh about and admire their taught skin even in Hiroshima, where skin was melted and where even today in 1957 the museum exhibits “[h]uman skin floating, surviving, still in the bloom of its agony” (as SHE had already said in her declamation). But the business of love puts aside such painful remembrances, even transforms them, just as the opening shot, which appears as two bodies writhing in dust or ash turns out to be two lovers covered in sweat. Even “banal” love displaces the business of remembering, even important things.
Banal affairs, of course, have no literary, as opposed to prurient, interest. But Resnais has no interest even in titillation, so the focus on the affair is on the significance of this chance relation to the characters. As for HE, the film gives almost no insight. We know he is an architect and has some undefined interest in politics (probably vaguely liberal), and given how he constantly corrects SHE (that she doesn’t remember, there is no need to remember, indeed there is nothing to remember) we infer that he is a modern man of the world, who probably does not want to be reminded of the days of the war and relative responsibility. As Duras specifies in her characterization of him, he comes across as highly Westernized. He speaks flawless French, and his manner is such that it causes SHE to ask him if he is “completely Japanese.” (He assures her he is.) He was not in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, but his family was. After a moment’s hesitation, he agrees with SHE that he was “lucky” to be fighting the war at the time. He tells us later he is happily married to a beautiful wife (who is away for several days in the mountains) and is a father. Beyond that, we know nothing essential about him. We don’t even know how they met. We see that he acts urbanely the morning after; perhaps this is a habit with him.
It is SHE that the film examines. When we meet her still in bed, she is not the person we expect from her declamations. She playfully deflects his arch regret that he knows nothing about her by coyly treating it as a compliment. She jokes about her doubtful morals: “Being doubtful about the morals of other people.” Her banter is of such a different character from the introductory opera (as Duras calls it) that it is striking when HE tells her that his family lived in Hiroshima on that fateful day, she does not ask him what happened to them. Perhaps, we think, she picks up men regularly, but she assures him it is not often: “But it happens. I have a weakness for men.”
Yet not all is playfulness. In the morning, while he is still asleep, she sees his hand twitch. Momentarily (by means of a cross-cut), we see her recall something—first a still hand, then a dead man with a girl embracing him. The moment passes, and HE awakes. But there is something to her past. She tells him that she came from Nevers, but will never return. She refuses to explain.
HE develops a need to see her again, not so much fascinated by her past, but rather aroused when he sees her in a Red Cross nurse’s uniform. (Duras writes in her synopsis: “He’s like everyone else, like all men, exactly, and in travesty there is an erotic factor that intrigues all men. The eternal nurse of an eternal war . . .”) She must, however, be off to finish the film she is acting in. It is a movie about “Peace.” (“Not at all a ridiculous film,” Duras observes, “but just another film.”) She refuses his request to see him again, even knowing that she is to leave Hiroshima the next day, and leaves him standing on the street when she goes off in a cab.
He tracks her down that afternoon when she is finished filming her part. He starts up again with talk of Nevers and her leaving. The final part of the filming is of a large public demonstration against the Bomb. The two watch, and SHE is even moved when she sees the emotionless girls in the procession. (In retrospect we can wonder if her identification is more with their youth and innocence than with the cause they go through the motions of supporting.) HE abruptly tells her that she will come with him; she does not resist.
They go to his house, where they make love again. During this time, he probes her on her life at Nevers. She tells him the story, which explains both her casual approach to men and her inability to commit. During the war she had fallen in love with a German officer. She was ardently in love with him—she was 18 and the German had promised to marry her and take her to Bavaria. The movie shows scenes of the young lovers, principally her racing toward him.
“SHE: At first we met in barns. Then among the ruins. And then in rooms. Like anywhere else.
. . .
“SHE: And then he was dead.”
HE keeps asking questions, probing her. She resists, wants to know why he is interested in this one, rather than the others.
They realize that they have very little time together once night begins to fall, but it’s too long for a good-bye.
“HE (very calmly): All we can do now is to kill the time left before your departure. Still sixteen hours before your plane leaves.
“SHE (terribly upset, distressed): That’s a terribly long time . . .
“HE (gently): No. You mustn’t be afraid.”
With that, the fourth scene begins, and it is really the heart of the story. It is here during a night of drinking that SHE tells of the horror that the death of her first lover entailed. And HE guessed right that “[i[t was there … that you must have begun to be what you are today.”
The scene in which SHE wept over her dying lover (introduced as the cross-cut early on) would be the source all her grief since. Not only did she lose her first and most unsullied love, but she was also exposed as one who “aided” the enemy. The pent-up anger from the occupation would fall on her head, as well as her family’s. Her father had to close his pharmacy from the disgrace. It must have been especially difficult for her mother, who Duras tells us, “was either Jewish [or separated from her husband.]” The affair with the Nazi soldier had to burn her deeply. Nevertheless, she “treats her child with rough tenderness. But an infinite tenderness. She hasn’t given up hope for her daughter.” (The fact that Duras goes to such length to provide background never disclosed to the audience shows how even she conceives of the project as a literary, rather than a cinematic one.)
The town humiliates her by shaving her head. But she is too stunned by his death to notice: “I’m much too busy suffering. … All I hear is the sound of the scissors on my head.” Her loss of hair reminds us of the women of Hiroshima: “Anonymous heads of hair that the women of Hiroshima, when they awoke in the morning, discovered had fallen out.” She returned home, but could not live with people, and her parents led her into a cellar, where she lived, a madwoman, scratching the walls and screaming. In time her sanity returned, and she was let out. Her mother gave her money, and she bicycled to Paris, where the talk was of Hiroshima. Her hair was long enough now for her to join the crowds.
This story, told in flashbacks, not quite coherently, with much emotion, in a bar with night falling, draws them together. HE is exhilarated when he finds out that she has never told another man this story, not even her husband. It is a mark of their love. But what is the significance now?
“HE: In a few years, when I’ll have forgotten you, and when other such adventures, from sheer habit, will happen to me, I’ll remember you as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness. I’ll think of this adventure as of the horror of oblivion. I already know it.”
The final scene involves the desolation of their parting. SHE must violently wretch herself from him, and HE, despite his knowledge that he will forget her, for these last hours must stalk her forlornly. He follows her to her room, through the city, to a railroad station, to another bar where another man talks to her (she does not listen), and finally back to her room. Although he had asks her to stay, she refuses and he does not press her. Duras suggests that they have something beyond love. “A hopeless love, killed like the Nevers love. Therefore already relegated to oblivion. Therefore eternal.” SHE finally names him: “Hiroshima, that’s your name.” And the film ends.
So what is to be made of this? At the time, we know, the most advanced French directors, such as Louis Malle and François Truffaut, considered that Hiroshima mon amour not only pointed the way of the future, but also was already well ahead of its time. This is no small praise given that Truffaut the same year released The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups), generally considered the herald of the French New Wave, and Malle the year before released The Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud), itself displaying new narrative devices and advanced cutting and other editing techniques. But they regarded Resnais’s work qualitatively different from theirs. Since then it has firmly occupied center stage in France’s view of its own contribution to world cinema. Does it deserve the accolades and if so, for what reason?
First, I think it’s necessary to strip away some of the excess acclaim for truly undeserved aspects (knowing that a highly acclaimed work usually sweeps in its wake total approbation rather than critical thinking). The aspect that deserves the least amount of praise, in my view, is the music by Giovanni Fusco. I have never understood why so many big time directors, such as Antonioni, Viktor Tourjansky and Costa-Gavras, used Fusco to write scores for their films. The characteristic method of Fusco was to parody or mimic an established style, vaguely sounding like a known composer. The music is generally overly loud and often vulgar. It always draws attention to itself to the detriment of a particular scene. In the first part, during the opening credits and the “opera,” Fusco attempts an experimental style. Duras thought it sounded like Stravinsky, which the flute part suggests, but I think he was attempting to mimic the piano music of the early twentieth century Viennese composers. The problem is that the twentieth century modernists hated repetition more than anything. And yet the “experimental theme” is so short that when reverted to its repetitiveness became monotonous (indeed it sounds like it is mocking what is seen on the screen). Other than that short piano-flute-horns theme, the rest of the music is cloying program music. Listen to the music when SHE is watching HE sleep in the second scene. The rather insipid theme (to suggest how happy and sated she is as she walks in her Japanese robe) turns dark in such a manipulative way that the entire scene loses both the surprise of the cross-cut and any semblance of subtlety. The final scenes at the bars and through the city are as bland as any background music in any film. (The lack of imagination of the score in this movie is in stark contrast to another French film of that year, Black Orpheus (Orfeu negro), which won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year. Even Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows the year before experimented with the improvisational, admittedly American, music of Miles Davis.)
The second aspect to discount is the editing and technical features. While Resnais masterly cuts the documentary footage in the “opera” section to create a well paced visual to match the poetic declamation, there was nothing experimental about it. Moreover, the use of the cross-cut to suggest flashback goes back to silent films. The opening scene where the apparently dust-covered writhing bodies turn out to be sweat-covered lovers is clever but the symbolism is not sustained in the movie. As for the shots in “present time,” they are mainly facial close-ups unremarkable, and even old-fashioned, for 1959. Resnais boasted at the time that he had “decimated” time in the movie. I really do not see what he was referring to. In fact, many more and more innovative ways of compressing time, experiencing flashbacks, comparing present to past and other narrative tricks with time were used in Citizen Kane almost two decades before.
Yet one still comes away with the impression that there was something imaginative and “advanced” about the film. I think that goes to its literary quality, and specifically the genre of literature it flirted with. The experiments of the Nouveau Roman had been around for five years (although the term was only coined in 1957), but no one had tried to duplicate the effort on film. The literary movement was intended to carry to their logical conclusion the experiments of many decades. Instead of eliminating only plot, character, thematic development and other things that were typically associated with prose fiction one-by-one, the new French movement intended to eliminate it all and at once. The most influential of these novelists was Alain Robbe-Grillet who by 1957 had written several novels in this style, one of which achieved popularity (Le Voyeur). In these novels the approach was something like the following generalization: Take a narration by a narrator that may or may not be involved in the subject of the narration and his narrative may or may not be reliable. Reduce the narration to its simplest elements, and like the technique of Cubists, reassemble the narrative in a formal, “geometric” way with repetitions and repetitions with variations that sometimes lead to a surprise (or prefigured) ending or other times leave the reader unsure about major elements including the role of the narrator.
Marguerite Duras never fully immersed herself in this movement. Her extensive background notes and expositions in her scenario showed that she was not wholly weaned from traditional narrative techniques, particularly character delineation. Nevertheless, the story is stripped to the minimum of the moment (if not to its essentials), and this affair becomes the means of understanding that affair. And if there is a lesson, it is that the unfailing contingency prevents our desires from realization.
Over the years much has been made of this film. One of the consequences of this nouveau roman-literary approach is that it contains sufficient “space” for critics (particularly academic ones) to fill the void with ideas that have only the vaguest relation to the work. This is particularly true of this film, where Resnais had not yet learned to substitute allusion and repetition for the narrative elements he had stripped out of it. That would come in his next project Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad), where he would involve himself in the writing, together with Robbe-Grillet himself. That film would push Resnais’ experimental vision to about the limit he could take it. In that movie he would also eliminate all the traces of sentimentality contained in Hiroshima mon amour, making it a more purely intellectual experience than this film. I suspect, however, that of the two this film will remain the more popular because it attempts to reach a moral, albeit an unhappy and inconclusive one. In the end, the movie must be judged on the “truth” of this moral conclusion, and not the experimental technique used to propel the story.
Translated quotes from the film in the text are from Hiroshima mon amour. Text by Marguerite Duras for the film by Alain Resnais; translated by Richard Seaver (NY: Grove Wiedenfeld: © 1961).
Scenes from the film above are from the Janus Films version (with English subtitles), credited as follows: Argos Films, Como Films, Daiei Motion Picture et Pathe Overseas Productions. The print does not credit the English translator.
The new Rialto Pictures restoration is both warmer and sharper visually than the screen captures in this post. Its English subtitles are also translated differently than either of the two previous versions.