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Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959)
|by P. G. R. Nair|
Director : Alain Resnais / France/French/88 mts
Seldom in our viewing experience we come across a film that demands equal attention of the head and the heart. Hiroshima, Mon Amour is one such movie. This is the groundbreaking film debut of Alain Resnais ("Last Year at Marienbad" / "Je t'aime, Je t'aime" / "Muriel"); it's one of the landmark French New Wave films that featured innovative flashback techniques that altered the narratives chronological order and used silence to indicate the past.
In July 1959, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Pierre Kast, and other members of the editorial board of Cahiers du Cinema convened a roundtable on Hiroshima Mon Amour. Godard called it the first film without any cinematic references; Jacques Rivette said its rupturing of rhythm likened it to contemporary classical music; all members agreed on its status as a cinematic watershed. With his first feature, Alain Resnais created the thing they had all been looking for: a truly “modern” film.
It’s difficult to quantify the breadth of Hiroshima Mon Amour’s impact. It remains one of the most influential films in the short history of the medium, first of all because it liberated moviemakers from linear construction. Without Hiroshima, many films thereafter would have been unthinkable, from I Fidanzati to The Pawnbroker to Point Blank to Petulia to Don’t Look Now (and almost every other Nicolas Roeg movie) to Out of Sight and The Limey. After he screened the answer print, Anatole Dauman, one of the film’s producers, told Resnais, “I’ve seen all this before, in Citizen Kane, a film which breaks chronology and reverses the flow of time.” To which Resnais replied, “Yes, but in my film time is shattered.” As it is, often for less dramatically compelling and sometimes more fanciful reasons, in many of the above films.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Alain Resnais’ meditation on memory and how one can never escape or forget the past, follows a French actress who travels to Hiroshima to shoot a movie. She meets a Japanese architect and the two have a romantic fling. They have great chemistry together but both know they can never leave their families, nor have they any inclination to do so. The more time they spend together in the shadow of a horrific war, the more the woman is reminded of her first great love–a German soldier with whom she had a passionate affair during the Occupation. What really gets us about this movie is Resnais’ incredible editing, conflating past and present; Michio Takahashi and Sacha Vierny’s gorgeous photography; and Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco’s haunting, lonely music score. Their music is a presence unto itself. Though made in the late 50s, Hiroshima’s imagery and music give it a feel at once modern and timeless quality , this is indeed a beautiful piece of art.
The film is based on the daring screenplay by novelist Marguerite Duras, key writer in the Nouveau Roman movement. Marguerite Duras and I had this idea of working in two tenses,” Resnais told Parisian journalist Joan Dupont in a recent interview. “The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback…. You might even imagine that everything the Emmanuelle Riva character narrated was false; there’s no proof that the story she recites really happened. On a formal level, I found that ambiguity interesting.” In Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais and Marguerite Duras show their debts to the Modernists, to Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, philosopher Henri Bergson, and a group of contemporary experimental French writers (one of whom, Alain Robbe-Grillet, wrote the screenplay for Resnais’s equally groundbreaking film The last year in Marienbad). In place of linear narrative and clear denouements, these writers employed stream of consciousness, subjectivity, and “affective” or “lived” time, the sense of experience through memory as opposed to the “artificial” time of calendars.
The film’s celebrated opening montage introduces this idea in its selection of dissimilar images: snowy ashes of nuclear fallout, the glint of sweat on embracing lovers, disfigured victims of the Hiroshima bombing, and public spaces in the newly rebuilt city. Gradually, the voice-over of an anonymous French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) provides a loose cohesion. These are her memories, recalled for her anonymous Japanese lover (Eiji Okada), who tells her that she “saw nothing of Hiroshima,” because she was not there when the bomb fell. She is trying desperately to understand, however. “I longed for a memory beyond consolation,” she says, “a memory of shadows and stone.”
In Hiroshima, 14 years after the atomic bomb was dropped, to make an international peace film where she plays a nurse, married French actress (Emmanuelle Riva, her first credited role) has a fling with a married Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) shortly before her departure to Paris. In her hotel room, in the aptly named New Hiroshima, the nameless lovers make love, embrace and explore how the war altered their lives and what Hiroshima means to them. She leaves to finish filming and he can't get her out of his mind, so he visits her on the set. She assumes their illicit rendezvous (they are both married) is for one night, but he pleads with her to meet again. That in a few hours she's set to return to Paris and he has failed to convince her to stay on longer upsets him greatly, as he knows it's likely that he will never see her again and she has greatly touched him.
While having their last drink together she tells him of her humiliating unforgettable experience in occupied France, in her hometown of Nevers, a place she has never returned to after the war. She begins to tell him about her youth in Nevers and the German lover she had during the war, who was shot and died in her arms. Because he was an enemy soldier, she was ostracized by her parents, humiliated by having her head shaved, being paraded in public, then locked in a cellar. She tells of the German being her first love, and how miserable everything became for her at the war's end when she found herself isolated. She fled to Paris just before the bombing of Hiroshima. Her melancholy connects with the architect's wartime experience, where 200,000 died and eighty thousand were wounded in just a few seconds from the bomb that virtually ended the war.
The recollection of a traumatic past during their conversation jolts her. Wandering the city streets in the early morning hours, she wonders if she should return to France or stay with her new lover. She longs for a memory of Hiroshima, hoping to bury her own past by empathizing with the greater suffering of countless victims. But her visit to Hiroshima and brief affair only amplify her sorrow.
In tracing her emotional devastation, Hiroshima Mon Amour is less about memory itself, more about the burdensome act of remembering. As Sontag says, “The memory of an unrecapturable feeling becomes the subject of feeling”.
Appropriately, the Japanese man embodies this theme. He reveals to the woman that, when the bomb fell, he was away fighting. His family, however, was in Hiroshima, and now he must live with his survivor’s guilt. His sorrow manifests in an erotic longing that hopelessly, endlessly remains unfulfilled.
As important as the lover and the city are, the French woman provides the film its most overt modernist theme: human isolation. She recognizes the necessity of confronting her own history in order to purge her sadness, but abandoning the past is equally horrible. In her hotel room, staring in the mirror, she says to her dead lover, “I cheated on you tonight with that stranger. Look how I am forgetting you.” This sense of guilt and regret keeps her from realizing any sustained emotional and physical satisfaction.
Resnais's highly stylized and personal film serves as a bridge to the past so some understanding of it can be reached, while because of its commercial success and its critical acclaim it also paved the way for modern filmmakers to make innovative non-linear films instead of the usual linear ones.
A series of "Hundred Favorite Films Forever"
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05/30/2013 22:11 PM
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