Hiroshima, mon amour


Director: Alain Resnais
Producers: Anatole Dauman and Samy Halfon
Writer: Marguerite Duras
Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas, Pierre Barbaud, Bernard Fresson
Studio: Argos Films
Year: 1959

Why I DVRed This: Over Christmas, I went to Tokyo with my beautiful wife for our honeymoon. It was my first trip to Japan, and since then, I have been (almost) completely obsessed with all things Japan (not like I’m wearing a kimono or anything like that—more like I just keep trying to eat Japanese food and drink tea). When we got back home, I noticed Hiroshima, mon amour on TCM’s schedule for January 4 (I got back to the US on January 1), and it seemed like fate smiling at me. It was A) a film I’d always wanted to see (especially given the 17-year old me’s obsession with this Ultravox! song) and B) about Japan. Then, I had this genius idea to write one post about December 7th and follow it up with a post about Hiroshima, mon amour. See, because one film is about the beginning of World War II and one about the end of it and the repercussions thereof, they would make good bookends. I thought it was kind of cute but in a horrifying way. And then it took me way too long to write this post, but that’s another story.

Presentation on TCM: Ben Mankiewicz introduced it, but my DVR did not start recording until he was just finishing up his spiel. Apparently, TCM wanted the film to fit in 90 minutes, so it introduced the film during the end of whatever movie was playing before. My DVR also cut out the last thirty seconds of the film, but I was able to find the whole scene on YouTube. This was the first time I’ve been mad at the relationship between my DVR and TCM, although I’m inclined to blame my DVR more than TCM (because, when in doubt, blame Time Warner, right?).

Synopsis: In present-day (1959) Hiroshima, two lovers, Elle and Lui (him and her in French), have a series of deeply personal conversations about love, their lives, and each other. Elle (Riva) is a French actress filming a movie about peace, and Lui (Okada) is a Japanese architect who lost his family in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. She recounts her young love affair with a German soldier in Nevers, France, during World War II. Both are married to others, and though their attachment to each other appears distant and undefined, they seem to linger with each other.

Analysis (contains spoilers): I adored this film. Absolutely adored it. It was beautifully shot, intellectually challenging and stimulating, well acted, and emotionally resonant. I have been thinking about it since I finished watching it over a month ago, and my opinions of it have not been diminished since then.

Hiroshima, mon amour is a film that could be discussed on so many levels, but my own interests led me to view it for what it was about and how the director, Alain Resnais, got that message across. The film was Resnais’ first feature, and he was originally commissioned to film a documentary about the atomic bomb (due to his successful documentaries about the concentration camps—apparently Resnais specialized in human atrocities), but Resnais declined the offer. Instead, he realized through conversations with Marguerite Duras (who would end up writing the screenplay), that he could make a film that combined fact and fiction around one central tenet: that talking about Hiroshima necessarily means confronting the reality that we cannot really speak about it.

The Couple
Elle and Lui start one of their personal conversations about seeing. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

This view is made explicit in the opening scene of the film. Elle and Lui are in bed, and we see his arms transform from those of a burn victim to those of Lui. Then, Elle and Lui discuss what she has seen in Hiroshima. She tells him she has seen so much, essentially, while he keeps telling her she has seen nothing. And while there is a bit of patriarchal condescension in his part, the film makes clear that she is in the wrong, for she did not experience Hiroshima. He didn’t either, of course, but family members of his died there. During this exchange, the film cuts between footage of what Elle has seen and their arms. She says she saw the hospital and the museum, and we see quick-cuts of images of the hospital and the museum of the bombing, the same images she saw. Lui repeats: You saw nothing at the hospital. You saw nothing at the museum. “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.”

I Saw Everything
Elle says this over and over. In a way, she is right. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
You Saw Nothing
Lui says this over and over again. In a way, he is right too. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

From this, the film makes clear that seeing and knowing are not the same things, especially when what is being seen is curated or filtered. Seeing anything in a museum renders the sight different from seeing it in real life. When an object is placed in a museum, it becomes an artifact, and its meaning becomes demarcated. Interpretation, truth itself, becomes proscribed, for the curator has already defined the meaning of the object. The film also implies that the very nature of film has this same power and, by extension, this same detraction. Resnais uses a combination of documentary and fiction that implies that supposedly “objective” texts (museums, newsreels) are themselves subjective, so when we see real footage of burn victims or the hospitals (or when we see smiling tour guides), we should remember that these are what we have been allowed to see. More to the point, the suggestion is that the act of narration fundamentally alters the truth.

It’s all a bit heavy. This is not a propaganda piece like December 7th. Nor is it a mere examination of the results of history. Instead, Hiroshima, mon amour is an art film and all that the label connotes. David Bordwell (who is among my favorite film scholars out there) has described the art film as a genre with conventions like any other genre of film, and Hiroshima, mon amour certainly agrees with his definitions. It feels ambiguous at times, has a clear authorial voice, suggests a higher meaning, uses classical sets but untraditional narrative strategies, and employs a clear style. Thus, Hiroshima, mon amour should first and foremost be viewed primarily as art cinema, a point I make only to excuse myself for sounding overly philosophical and turgid at times in this analysis. So, without further ado (see how grandiloquent I can be!), let’s return to the meaning of Hiroshima, mon amour

The main point that narration distorts truth comes across most clearly not in Lui’s insistence that Elle saw nothing in Hiroshima but, rather, in her recounting of a previous love affair in Nevers, her hometown. During World War II, she was young and fell in love with a German soldier occupying her town. She recounts the love to Lui over a few scenes, but the bulk of it is told over beers at a café. Her words reveal part of the story, just the bare minimum. He thinks he gets it and shrieks in delight later at being told that he alone knows this story. But, of course, he doesn’t, not really. The images that we in the audience see, the ones that accompany her spartan descriptions show so much more. We see her sacrificial haircut (a punishment from her townsmen that makes her look like Joan of Arc), the hatred inflicted upon her by other Frenchmen, the tortured look of finding her soldier lover dead, the delight in experiencing his embrace, the bucolic beauty of Nevers during the war, the isolation of her and her lover in the cave, the isolation of her in solitude and punishment after her affair is discovered.

Of this story, Lui only hears words, secondhand descriptions of her life. Just as the experience of seeing the effects of a bomb in a museum is nowhere close to the experience of feeling it firsthand, so too is the experience of talking about love different from the reality of feeling it. We know she is holding back in her descriptions, because we see everything. But, then again, of course we do not. We see only filmed images of love—they are closer to reality but then just by an inch or two. And, in any case, the “narrative” of love, the telling of it, changes the experience too. We see Elle grow more distant from Lui as a result, less willing, perhaps, to uproot her current life and husband and stay with him. This might be because she feels like she’s given too much to Lui already, or it might be, as some critics have suggested (and critics and scholars have suggested almost every reading of this film—here‘s an interesting one about mapping the film), because the experience of forming the narrative of her love affair and sharing it has healed her. In this reading, she comes out of the experience less interested in Lui because she’s finally realized herself fully. In a different reading, she feels different about Lui because she realizes that telling him about the soldier has corrupted her reality of him. The film, as I said, has some ambiguities, and it’s never quite clear how Elle feels about Lui or how she feels about sharing her story with him.

German Lover
The film only shows the audience Elle’s love for her German soldier; Lui only gets to hear of it. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Prison Elle
And only the audience gets to see her punishment, as she learns to suppress her love. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Interestingly, any of the meaning we get in the film is revealed largely through images Lui cannot see: flashbacks of both what Elle has seen in Hiroshima and of the aforementioned love affair. Aside from exposing new layers to Elle’s subjective narrative, they also puncture the traditional narrative structure of film as a whole. Instead of moving the story forward, the flashbacks actually anchor the film in the past. They make it clear that Liu and Elle’s stories are really about the effects of the past on the present, not about the lives they are living. Elle refers to knowing what it “is to forget” in the film, but the flashbacks remind us that the story’s main action occurs in the past. Incidentally, the film is interesting too because the flashbacks only privilege Elle, the woman (or I guess you could say the Frenchwoman, suggesting a Western bias, but let’s pretend that’s not the case here). In her flashback to love in Nevers, she recalls being imprisoned until she’s willing to contain her feelings, but in Hiroshima, she is able to let out her feelings fully in flashback form (unlike in real life when Lui slaps her at the café in order to keep her feelings in check). So the flashbacks, which are of course subjective and make us connect fully with Elle, allow her to be a full human fully experiencing the fullness of love and life.

Mirror Elle
The experience of remembering is too much for Elle to handle, and she apologizes to her German boyfriend for corrupting their love by sharing the story. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The film is, thus, about “seeing” and “knowing” and what memory can do for us or to us. But the film also implies that words themselves change the truth. In addition to shaping memories into shared words, changing the reality of the story, we also know that words sometimes can have two meanings (not to quote Robert Plant…). For instance, Lui asks her if Nevers has any additional meaning in French, and she says no, but, of course the name has a very clear meaning in English. Her town suggests that the love she describes never happened, because the story itself is not the truth. It also suggests that she may never love again. And, of course, it implies that we as a society need to ensure that Hiroshima never happens again.

Place names are also significant here because they provide our understanding of who these characters are. At the end of the film, Elle and Lui announce that their names are their locations:

Elle: Hi-ro-shi-ma. Hiroshima. That is your name.
Lui: Yes, that is my name. Your name is Ne-vers. Nevers in France.

But these locations mean much more than their identities. She is simply French. He is simply Hiroshima. And Hiroshima carries with it so many signifiers. But at it’ root, what we know of Hiroshima is simply what happened there. The first thing virtually anyone in the world conjures up when the name is heard is the image of Big Boy being dropped from the Enola Gay, destroying everything below, creating damage lasting decades (or more), and bringing with it a new atomic age. I struggle to think of another place that has become synonymous with destruction or tragedy (maybe Chernobyl? Pompeii? Nagasaki suffered the same fate as Hiroshima, but the name does not endure as much…), and I struggle even more so to understand what it would mean to be from such a place. Most places that embody tragedy to the point of synecdoche are far more localized places that no one truly comes from: Auschwitz, Pearl Harbor, Three Mile Island. But to be from Hiroshima is to be from tragedy. Elle and Lui at least have the experience of love there, but it is a love that is fleeting. There can, perhaps, be nothing more.

Elle ponders this throughout the film. At the beginning of the film, she states that one of the lessons she’s learned through her visit to Hiroshima is that life goes on, but she immediately brings up the horrors societies and races commit on others. World War II, in particular, has impacted her and Lui’s life immensely. She has lost the respect of her family and the life of her first love; he has seen death firsthand (presumably) as a Japanese soldier and experienced the loss of family at Hiroshima. The war continues to impact their present, too, a decade and a half after its conclusion. They would not meet—and, thus, we would not meet them—if not for the war, for she would not be filming a peace movie in Hiroshima.

This is all getting too long. As you can probably see, this is a complex film. One could write an excellent PhD thesis on the film and its meaning (as indeed several have), but I should cut off my own analysis a bit before that. The last thing I wanted to bring up is the parallels I noted between Hiroshima, mon amour and two other films. First, there is the connection to Casablanca that other critics (namely James Monaco in his book on Resnais) have pointed out. Both are stories of two transnational illicit lovers having an affair brought about by wartime, and, in both, the central question is whether the affair can continue past the time allotted. Resnais even makes this parallel explicit by having the two lovers meet at the Casablanca toward the end of the film, although the scene there is far less melodramatic than any scene in Casablanca is. Elle sits at a table, alone, while a Japanese man tries to pick her up. Lui sits in a different table, watching. The two end up together at her hotel, but there is no romance at the Casablanca (perhaps because the romance of Casablanca is not possible in a world marred by tragedy).

Secondly, I noted parallels between Hiroshima, mon amour and Lost in Translation. This was probably heightened by the fact that I watched the latter film twice in the weeks before I saw Hiroshima. On my trip to Japan, my wife and I stayed at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, so it seemed necessary to view Lost in Translation ahead of time. Then, it was also an on-demand choice on my TV on my flight home, so I watched it again because A) I had a twelve-hour flight, and B) I wanted to be able to point and say “I used that pool,” or “I sat at that bar,” and so forth. Anyway, both Hiroshima, mon amour and Lost in Translation open on a semi-clothed woman in a hotel bed in Japan; both involve illicit romances between mismatched foreigners in Japan; both are structured primarily as a series of personal conversations and deal with weighty issues; both primarily take place in hotels that look ridiculously awesome; and both have great soundtracks. Sophia Coppola has denied the influence of Hiroshima on Lost in Translation, saying that she “love[s] the title” but has “never seen it.” I  guess staying in ridiculously nice Japanese hotels just inspires a certain kind of film!

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, duh. I fucking adored this movie, and it’s been one of the best I’ve seen as part of this project (the others I’ve liked almost as much have been The Night of the Hunter, Peeping Tom, Mildred Pierce, and Monsieur Verdoux). I would watch this again in a heartbeat, and I’d also go to Japan again in a heartbeat, not that those are that related to each other…