Nils Quaetaert - Authornils.firstname.lastname@example.org
Anastasia Angeli - Illustratoranastasia.email@example.com
For us young Europeans, it can be hard to picture a time when the war was still fresh in everyone’s mind, when trying to make sense of it often meant reopening intimate wounds. That is what makes Hiroshima, mon amour such a fascinating watch.
The year was 1959 when Hiroshima, mon amour came out on the silver screens. Only 14 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent end of World War II. Those events were still looming over everyone’s minds, as people were wrestling with mixed feelings of horror, guilt and shame and as propaganda and censorship were still in full swing. In such conflicted times, Hiroshima, mon amour dared taking a step back to look precisely at the painful and complex relationship individuals hold to their memory, and how they can often conflict with the collective narrative.
The film was the fruit of the collaboration between director Alain Resnais and author Marguerite Duras, who both brought their own themes and obsessions to the table. Particularly, Alain Resnais is often seen as a director obsessed with the idea of memory, both individual and collective.
When he decided to take on the project, he was no stranger to movies about the war, as he was just coming back from Night and Fog, an impactful but in retrospective imperfect documentary about deportations under the Nazi regime, that was unfortunately undermined by French censorship. Initially asked to make another documentary, the French director thought it would be more relevant to create a work of fiction around the idea of Hiroshima and decided to bring Marguerite Duras into the fold.
Iconic figure of the “Nouveau Roman” movement, Marguerite Duras had just published one of her most important works, Moderato Cantabile, when she joined the project. It was a book constructed around the motif of the romantic encounter, one of her subjects of predilection. It is thus not so surprising that Hiroshima, mon amour would inherit this theme.
The film thus became a film about love. Love during and after wartime. Love through the anguish of the bomb and personal trauma. And it is here that lies its originality when compared to other movies of its time. It is not interested in matters of right and wrong or in making value judgements. It takes love at face value in order to illustrate the pain and psychological damage arising from the memories of the war.
But enough about the context, let us delve into what the movie itself has to offer. It is a story about two unnamed characters, a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva in her first leading role) and a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) who’ve just met and fallen in love in the now reconstructed town of Hiroshima. She is an actress, staying in the infamous city for the filming of a movie and he is an architect and a politician whose family died during the bombing. She is married, and so is he. She is supposed to leave on the following day, and he wants to see her again.
The best way to describe the movie would be as a conversation. A conversation between these two characters that lasts from the morning after their first night together to the following morning, on the day of the actress’s departure. A conversation that cuts off and resumes as they leave and meet each other in various settings of Hiroshima. A conversation where one character wants to convince the other to stay. Few characters other than the two leads ever enter the frame and much less so utter a single word during the entire duration of the film - and when they do, it materializes more as a disruption of the conversation than as any kind of meaningful contribution.
However, this conversation presents some surprising peculiarities. Marguerite Duras purposefully wrote the dialogues of the film in a literary style, refusing to emulate how real people talk, giving rise to a speech that is rich in figures of speech and that can sometimes border on the declamatory. Often, the characters don’t even seem to answer each other in any obvious way, as if they were both monologuing in parallel. Through this odd way of conversing, the two characters compare, contrast and link their experiences of the war, try to bring to the surface those sometimes-forgotten memories of their youth that have shaped them into the persons that they are now.
This journey into memory is kindled by the strange aura of a town still recovering from utter devastation. While the traces of physical destruction are gone, the bomb seems to have left an indelible mark on the culture of the place. Museums and memorials commemorating the event abound, but also hotels, cafés and bars. A veritable economy of memory seems to have bloomed, organized around tourism, commemorations and filmmaking.
By the way, our French lead is precisely here to play in a movie about peace (“What else do you expect them to make in Hiroshima except a picture about peace?” she says, a cheeky way for the movie to point out its own originality). People come to the city to live the reconstructed memory of the catastrophe. It has become a symbol: “the City of Peace”. This duty of memory can itself become oppressive, as expressed by the scene where our protagonists pass through a parade on the Peace Square.
This dichotomy between lived and reconstructed memory is at the heart of the daring opening sequence of the film. This dreamlike sequence demonstrates one of the best aspects of the film, which is its editing. It superimposes documentary elements with images of bodies intertwined. Those bodies appear first covered in ashes, then in water and finally in sweat, signifying the persistence of war into intimate life. During this sequence we do not see the faces of the characters, only arms clutched around a back. The faces and identities of our protagonists are only revealed at the end of this sequence, with an exaggerated suddenness, as if abruptly awoken from a trance-like state. But we do hear their voices.
We hear them as they narrate over footage documenting life after the bomb in the city of peace. “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” These are the first words that we hear, said by the Japanese man. The woman retorts: “I saw everything. Everything.” She has seen the historical reconstructions, the newsreels, the photographs of the survivors. She has cried in front of these “authentical” representations of the disaster, those perfect illusions. But the man insists: “You made it all up”. The reconstructed and curated memory of a disaster, filtered through a lens of narration, cannot give insight into the corresponding lived experience.
However, this first sequence also gives us some of the first insights into the past of our female lead. “Like you I have a memory, I know what it is to forget”. She has her own memories relating to the war. As the film unravels, flashbacks from her past begin to surface. We will come to realize that the film is as much about Hiroshima as it is about the small town of Nevers in France. The first time we hear of this name, it is a brief mention, as the French woman explains in passing that it is her birthplace. But the subject keeps coming back, as the Japanese man develops a strong curiosity for the events that transpired in the small town. He needs to create a bond between them, between Hiroshima and Nevers, in hope that it may lead her to stay.
Contrasting the widely visible and spectacular tragedy that occurred in Hiroshima, Nevers has been home to a much smaller unseen tragedy involving our French lead, an event wrapped in shame and pain that seemed destined to oblivion. Everything is revealed during a pivotal scene set in a café on the banks of the river. Night has fallen, the two protagonists are seated near a window as the French woman tells her story. During the war she fell in love with a German soldier, a member of the occupying forces. And after witnessing the death of her love during the liberation, she became one of the shaven women.
Shaving was a display of public humiliation reserved to women accused of “Horizontal Collaboration” after the Second World War, meaning maintaining romantic and sexual relationships with the occupier. It was a phenomenon rooted in the search of scapegoats and drenched in misogyny, that is now looked upon as one of the most unfortunate byproducts of the Liberation. The movie uses the loss of hair as a motif here: the loss of hair due to radiation was also shown in the beginning sequence.
But more than any kind of public humiliation, it’s the denial of the legitimacy of her grief that caused her suffering. Because she screams of grief, because she cries for a love that was shameful, she is banished by her parents into a cellar. She is alone in suffering as France is erupting in joy: “The Marseillaise passes above my head. It’s deafening”. And as she herself says, she spends eternity in that cellar. But eventually, she comes out of eternity, though it is a long process. One night, deeming that she is starting to become reasonable, they let her out. And a few nights after, they tell her to leave for Paris where she will start a new life. When she arrives, Hiroshima is in the news, explaining her strange fascination with the place.
This scene constitutes paradoxically both a moment of communion and discord for our protagonists. The French woman uses the second person when talking about the German soldier, associating him and the Japanese man. Meanwhile, the latter intervenes in the narration, as if he already knew the story that is unraveling. In the span of the scene, he goes from using physical violence in a probable bout of jealousy, to embracing the woman after hearing that he is the only one to have heard this story.
The revelations from the preceding scene, far from bringing resolution, create but turmoil and doubt in the hearts of our protagonists. The actress is left with the guilt of having forgotten about her former lover under the pressure of shame and the fear of forgetting her newfound lover as well, while the architect is torn with the knowledge that another man, a dead man, will always be more important to her than him. In the dead of the night, they are left wandering in the streets of Hiroshima, as past and present melt into one another.
Once again, the editing of the movie must be praised. With languid travellings, the streets of Hiroshima and of Nevers become superposed. This superposition highlights the differences between the two towns: Hiroshima is drenched in obscurity, filmed through wide-angle lenses, while Nevers is in broad daylight, filmed through low-angle lenses. Two very different towns linked through tragedy.
Communication breakdowns between our protagonists. When they arrive at their final stay for the night, a nightclub called “The Casablanca”, only silence remains. They stare at each other, at different tables while another man tries to talk to the French woman. But even if the night never stops in Hiroshima, as the Japanese protagonist says, one ends up coming out of eternity. When morning comes, they finish in the room where the story began. “Hiroshima. That is your name” says the actress to the architect. “Your name is Nevers. Nevers in France” he responds. We will never know if she decides to stay or not.