The opening shot of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour observes the entwined limbs of two lovers as ash settles on their skin before the image dissolves into those same bodies beaded with sweat. The ash, of course, suggests the nuclear fallout of the atomic bombing of the titular city in August of 1945 eliding time as it falls onto Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada some fourteen years later. Resnais had a preoccupation with time throughout his career – his next feature Last Year at Marienbad would step outside of it almost almost entirely – and Hiroshima Mon Amour drifts backwards and forwards through it to groundbreaking expressive effect. When challenged that such non-linear narrative techniques had been employed before, as in Citizen Kane, Resnais argued “yes, but in my film time is shattered.”
That word, ‘shattered’, could just as easily be applied to emotional states of his two central characters – or those of heartbroken and enrapt audience members. Marguerite Duras’ screenplay fashions a passionate and devastating love affair between a French actress, Her (Riva), and a Japanese architect, Him (Okada), as a framework for a meditation on memory, the ephemeral nature of love, and the pressure points of societal and personal grief. This last point is illustrated in a prologue that overlays a conversation between Her and Him with images of modern Hiroshima and discordant footage of the horrific aftermath of the bombing. She tries to put into words her observations and her feelings, but he continually shuts down her appropriated sorrow – “you saw nothing at Hiroshima.”
How can she know, or see, when she did not experience? Is it even possible to comprehend the scale of the desolation? These questions will be twisted onto their heads as the finite nature of their tryst weighs on them and she reluctantly recounts her own tragic history – a wartime romance with a German soldier for which he was killed and she humiliated. She can no longer see his face as clearly as she once did. Now it is Okada who lurches into the throes of sympathy for her insurmountable private grief. “I will think of this story as the horror of forgetting,” he intones, already travelling years ahead and painting his future self with the melancholy of Her past, and with the anxious hues of an expected inability to remember that which has been long lost.The future holds little fulfilment as Resnais’ cyclical structures seem to lead to Riva envisioning the past repeating itself and asphalt burning: “10,000 suns they’ll say.”
She is magnetic in what was her first major film role, her eyes swimming with ghosts and the pain of loss even when she is outwardly happy. The scene in which she relays the tale of her former lover to her current one is utterly spellbinding. The opening section perhaps most clearly resembles the original premise of the film, which was to be a documentary follow-up to Resnais’ lauded Night and Fog, but the elegant dialogue lend a distinct mournful lyricism from the off. The whole film is engulfed by the deep shadows of Sacha Vierny’s monochrome cinematography, the textures of which add to a cinematic poetry reminiscent of someone like Murnau. It’s fitting that Resnais could evoke such comparisons while breaking new ground, commingling old and new to raise important philosophical and moral questions. If that weren’t praise enough, the ultimate power of Hiroshima Mon Amour lies not in the objective merits of its technique, but in its deep and timeless emotional resonance.