Hiroshima Mon Amour – Resnais and Duras and the tragedy of memory. (Film review)

How does one speak about a project that both Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais called ‘impossible’? I’ve been thinking for days how to talk about Hiroshima Mon Amour and I still can’t think about what to say. It was intended originally as another documentary like Night and Fog, only this time about the horrors of the bombing of Hiroshima.  Resnais only wanted to do the film if Chris Marker would be involved, as he’d been so valuable in Night and Fog.  After ten days Marker would leave the project, however, and Resnais decides to meet with Duras about taking it over. Once she is signed on, there is no possibility of a documentary. As a Duras fan this film has everything about her written into its fabric and in many ways it’s a film about the work of Duras as it is a film about Hiroshima, love or memory.

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Similar to Last Year at Marienbad, which will be made the next year and come out in 1961, Hiroshima mon Amour deals with memory and forgetting.  As it turns out, so does much of Duras’ work.  It’s no surprise Resnais thought of Marguerite Duras – at least to me it is no surprise.  I would assume from his films he was a great fan of hers already.  What did surprise me when I saw the film was how much of it is true to the Duras aesthetic. She is such a complicated writer and in so many ways, a still incomprehensible writer that I am amazed by the power of Resnais to see her as a script writer.  Moderato Cantabile was only published two years before this and that is the start of her experimental period that she would then refine and perfect for the rest of her life. For me, an adoring but admittedly modest Duras reader, I see her as very abstract in Hiroshima Mon Amour. I’m flawed by the faith these two great artists place in each other, and the confidence each has that this film can be made at all. Perhaps there is something in the admitting that it is impossible that gave them access to the possible?

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Roughly, the film is “about” an unnamed American actress (Emanuele Riva – who is up for an academy award this year for best actress) and an unnamed Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who begin a love affair in Hiroshima while she is there working on a film about “peace”. Weather the affair actually takes place or not is never made clear and as the film winds its way through its complex motions what does become clear is that you can’t take anything at face value. The opening shots are beautiful images of a couple making love while ash falls over them, the male and female voice overs gently debating the truth of what they might see, though don’t imagine this dialogue takes place among any straight forward text;  “You’re destroying me; you’re good for me” is more the way this journey begins. The images of the bodies are done in such extreme closeup that they are almost indistinguishable. And of course the falling Ash implies burnt and charred bodies falling all over them.

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As the film progresses and we discover the lovers are adulterous, characterization comes to the fore particularly in the case of the female who begins to relate her tale of a public humiliation when she was younger at having been discovered in an affair with a young German soldier at the end of the war. He was shot on the last day as he was waiting for her so they could run away together. She lay weeping by his dead body, until her parents publicly shame her by shaving her head and locking her in  a cellar. This treatment was common and the psychological effects on the women staggering. It is a mistake to think here that Resnais and Duras are comparing the humility of the female with that of Hiroshima, rather their point is one of relating the personal to the universal. The message the viewer is to get from this film is that these events are so enormous and so impossible to fathom, that the small incremental pain of the human individual is sometimes the best access to the reality – as long as you are always aware you will not find the reality.  Swimming in the midst of this, is the hope and un-hope of forgetting and remembering.

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When I watched Last Year at Marienbad and in subsequent viewings of that film, I find myself completely immersed.  Hiroshima Mon Amour isn’t the same.  At times it drags, and even seems dull. Considering the subject matter and the writer, I can only assume this is a feeling planted in me by Resnais and Duras, and I make that judgement placing the faith in each of these great artists that I noted they must have placed in each other when they approached the subject.  Where the circular style of Marienbad is gripping, in Hiroshima it gets laboured and where the elusive dialogue is filled with the universe in Duras’ novellas, the shifting sands of the personal and the universal in the dialogue seem a little burdensome and endless in Hiroshima. I was amused to read in several reviews, the film described as “boring film students for years.” IN a lot of ways it runs like an abstract essay, its points being made conclusively, but comprehensively so that he journey to the essence is at times a little too thorough. Perhaps Resnais and Duras want us to have a sledge-hammer of repetition in our experience. This hardly seems an adequate explanation given the delicacy the pair usually apply to their work – although it can be argued that each is entirely robust in their own way. Perhaps each is hoping for a semi-surreal response in our minds so we fade in and out of that consciousness that film is so good at by-passing?

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Whatever we decide about how well we like our experience of watching Hiroshima Mon Amour, one thing is sure: its place in cinema history as one of the most important and influential films ever made is assured and well deserved.

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