Hiroshima Mon Amour: simple story of two lovers hides complicated message about memory and the fragility of existence

Alain Resnais, “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959)

This famous film tells a very deceptively simple story: a French actress whom we’ll call She (Emmanuelle Riva) is in Hiroshima for a few days to film an anti-war movie and meets a Japanese architect, He (Eiji Okada) in a bar at night. They fall in love and begin a short affair. The story really starts with their conversation in bed after sex: She tells He what she knows about the atomic-bomb devastation of Hiroshima in August 1945 and that she identifies with the city’s loss and sorrow, and he denies what she says. Though they have their separate lives with marriage partners and families, the two are strongly attracted to each other and He follows She obsessively through the city. She reveals to him her early life: as a teenager during the German occupation of France, she had fallen in love with a German soldier (Bernard Fresson) in her home town Nevers. After the Allied victory, the soldier is shot dead and She is disgraced and banished by her family to a basement cellar for a long time. Eventually She leaves Nevers for Paris.

The film revolves around when, not if, She returns to Paris to her own life and He goes back to his; in the meantime, the couple fight against the forgetting of memory and past love. She wants to return to Nevers to remember the soldier-lover; He wants her to stay in Hiroshima. There’s no indication on his part though that he will leave his wife and it’s just as likely that once She returns to Paris and her husband, that she won’t return to Nevers. Eventually She will forget He and He will forget She, or at most they will remember each other as one of several lovers each will have in an effort to remember previous lovers. Indeed She identifies He with her German lover and addresses the Japanese man as if he were the soldier; he readily accepts the identification but doesn’t reciprocate with identifying her as a past love he might have had. There’s the other possibility that She is emotionally fragile enough because of past history that she will give in to He’s demand to stay in Hiroshima but if she does so, both their marriages and careers are likely to be destroyed.

The plot is a dialogue between two cities, one revelling in victory but unwilling to let go of the past, the other humbled in defeat but ready to move ahead and forge a new beginning. There are many contrasts demonstrated between Nevers and Hiroshima: Nevers is a quiet, provincial town of old stone buildings and cobbled streets, faded and worn; Hiroshima is lit up well into the small hours of the morning, neon signs and billboards blaring new material goods and pleasures to be had. She’s affair with the soldier possibly represents a rebellion against old forms and conventions; for this blasphemy She suffers banishment and is unable to talk about it until she meets He, who can empathise because the old forms of the Hiroshima he once knew are broken.

One-third of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is taken up with a documentary-style montage of images of Hiroshima after its destruction in 1945 and the effects of radiation exposure on the vicitms, interspersed with images of the lovers in each other’s arms, overlaid by voice-over dialogue between She and He that isn’t necessarily connected with the parallel visual narratives. This section of the film is the most fascinating and innovative part. The film is highly self-referential: She is an actress making an anti-war movie (yet “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is hardly a movie about war and peace in their conventional meanings) and He is an architect who might have designed some of the buildings that will appear in her film. The rest of the film bounces between the present in Hiroshima and the past in Nevers smoothly as if the divide between the two temporal periods doesn’t exist and the events that happened in Nevers are happening at the same time as the lovers are meeting in Hiroshima. There are also references to other films in which lovers are torn between impossible demands: in one scene, She and He visit a night-club called Casablanca, a reference to the famous Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman film.

The two actors are to be commended for their portrayals of two characters, one emotionally scarred and vulnerable, the other apparently sensitive yet a bit creepy in his obsession with the foreign woman. The camera comes in close to their faces and focusses on their wide eyes, filled with fear, longing, desire and lust in turns. Riva in particular is convincing as She, torn between her desire for He and wanting to return to Nevers, unable to make up her mind between upholding the past and her memory of the German on the one hand and and on the other staying with He who would fade away like the German were she to leave Japan: a scene in which she returns to her apartment, opens the door, hesitates and then races up and down a staircase, returns to her apartment again … reflects her state of mind and also sums up her existential dilemma of being torn between the past and the present. Excellent cinematography work turns the town of Nevers and the city of Hiroshima into significant characters in their own right: scenes in Nevers are constantly contrasted with scenes in Hiroshima in a way that demonstrates Nevers as looking back to the past in spite of being victorious in war and Hiroshima as being brash and self-confident in striding to the future though it suffered defeat and tragedy on a tremendous scale.

The film shows itself to be more complicated than just a love story between two lost souls carrying lots of emotional baggage from towns that have suffered collective traumas of their own. The importance of memory, the present’s links to the past, the transitory nature of existence as demonstrated by Hiroshima’s unenviable history and the affair with the soldier, and the contrast between victors looking back and losers looking forward are demonstrated very well. There are subtle ironies in the film: during war-time, She was free with her soldier boyfriend but when peace comes, it spells death for the soldier and discrimination, imprisonment and ultimately exile for She. Hiroshima’s destruction provides a wealth of creative opportunities for He the architect. She and He’s paths cross at a particular point in time and although they seem to be together forever in the film, it actually covers the space of less than two days and when the film ends, the couple’s time together is already counting down to zero and they will (may?) depart forever.

At the same time, there’s something not quite real about She and He and the whole film itself is quite artificial and insubstantial in feel. The characters’ dialogue isn’t natural and Hiroshima and Nevers have a staged look about them. The film looks deliberately self-indulgent and pretentious, and it’s possible to interpret it as lacking in meaning. Nevertheless “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is a very moving film to watch, particularly in its first twenty minutes when the documentary montage sequence and the lovers’ conversation run in parallel.

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