More than 50 years after winning the Special Jury Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, Alain Resnais’ first feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour is being rereleased by the British Film Institute as part of a retrospective of the director’s work. It is to this day a powerful, enigmatic film that has lost none of its ability to shock.
Resnais and novelist-turned-screenwriter Marguerite Duras (who earned an Oscar nomination for her script) set a story of an affair between a Japanese businessman (Eiji Okada) and a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) in the city that will be forever associated with the horror of nuclear war. Hiroshima Mon Amour is a film about different cultures. It is a film about the ways in which our childhood informs and effects our love affairs. It is about memory, and it is about the inability to understand the memories and experiences of others.
The opening line of the film establishes the thematic discourse that runs right through the narrative, as the man tells the woman: “You know nothing of Hiroshima”. She counters him with lengthy descriptions of second-hand memories, facts called forth from newspaper reports and documentary films, to which he merely responds, over and over, variations of that phrase: “You know nothing of Hiroshima”. Resnais – and Duras – use the fictional story of the two lovers to critique the impossibility of knowing an other. Reportedly, the two discussed making a documentary on the same subject matter, but dismissed it; that is just as well. Resnais made his name as a director of documentaries, but Hiroshima Mon Amour tells us that, as has been said many times about the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima is an experience that cannot be adequately explained by people.
Instead, much of the film is devoted to Riva’s character recounting her youth, and the madness brought on by the death of her first love. Riva’s beautiful, fragile features always seem on the verge of freezing or faltering and revealing again the utter trauma of her youth. It’s a stunning performance, balanced well by the impassive Okada’s thoughtful, hopeful expressions listening to her tale of woe. Resnais’ focus on the woman’s personal tragedy, and the man’s constant questioning, his inability to know, avoids too much direct confrontation of Hiroshima itself, and simultaneously shows how intensely unavailable our pasts are to anyone else. The director went on to further exploit this fertile territory in Last Year at Marienbad (1961), but here such diversions do not destroy the sense of narrative continuity.
Through all of this, Resnais is never without a startlingly beautiful image. From the opening shot of ash falling on the embracing lovers dissolving into glittering, diamond-like sparkles on their skin. Hiroshima Mon Amour is also a film about details: a pair of watches on a bedside table; the charred bicycle in a museum; the unconscious twitch of a lover’s hands.
Quite simply, just as the unnamed man insists that observers cannot understand or know in any way what happened to Hiroshima when the United States detonated a nuclear bomb over the city on August 6, 1945, the aesthetic and philosophical impact of Hiroshima Mon Amour cannot be conveyed in words. If you have seen it, it is always worth another look. If you never have, then you must.