WHEN GOD’S SILENCE FALLS UPON MEN.
Another one of those classics that I wasn’t quite prepared for when I was studying film, but which had a much more powerful impact on me years later when I decided to give it another try. This one premiered the same year as The 400 Blows, which became the ultimate New Wave masterpiece. Unlike that film and Breathless (1960), Hiroshima, Mon Amour is not a depiction of youth, but a film that stubbornly looks back even when it’s employing narrative ideas that were fresh at the time. This is a movie that can’t let go of World War II.
In town to make an antiwar movie
The two characters at the center of this love story are referred to as ”Elle” and ”Lui”, meaning ”her” and ”him” in French. We’re in Hiroshima, where Lui (Eiji Okada) works as an architect. That’s where he met Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) who’s an actress, in town to make an antiwar movie. They embark on a romance; apart from sharing a hotel bed there’s also time to talk. In the beginning of the film, we see how they really can’t agree on how to view the history of this city, but later on they get into what they were doing during the war and how it affected them.
Elle grew up in Nevers, a small town that was occupied by German soldiers. She fell in love with one of them (Bernard Fresson), but that was the beginning of a traumatic experience…
Making a seminal documentary
This was director Alain Resnais’s feature film debut, but he was no beginner. After learning the craft as a film editor in the 1940s, he started making short films that culminated with Night and Fog (1956), a seminal documentary about the German concentration camps. Blending footage of Auschwitz and Majdanek as they looked ten years after liberation with archive films from the war, Night and Fog was controversial but made a huge impact. The idea was originally to make another documentary in the same vein, this time about the atomic bomb. That’s how Resnais was hired, but he wanted to do something different.
After struggling with the project, Resnais suggested that Marguerite Duras should write a screenplay. A renowned author, Duras was famous for romantic novels that emphasized what was not said, a talent she mastered through her use of dialogue. Hiroshima, Mon Amour blends past and present without clear borders and we learn much about the two lovers thanks to Duras’s dialogue and Resnais’s employment of brief flashbacks, illustrating how a sudden memory can jolt all of us at specific times, triggered perhaps by the sight of an object or something someone said in a conversation. The effect is somewhat jarring, just like in real life, and it was a technique that became part of the New Wave movement.
The couple’s time together is intensely romantic, but their conversations have unintended consequences; sharing memories about what took place during the war, especially in Elle’s case, perhaps makes both understand each other a little better… but there’s also a growing distance between them, evident near the end when it’s clear neither one of them can leave Nevers or Hiroshima behind them.
The film shows us the modern glory of Hiroshima as a neon-flashing contrast to the couple’s conversations; it often feels like we’re invited into their private bubble, with the real world going on outside. The opening of the film remains the most memorable sequence, a series of images consisting of 1945 newsreels from Hiroshima and closeups of a man and a woman embracing, covered in ash, as the voices of Elle and Liu argue over the nature of remembering Hiroshima. Just as unforgettable is the music by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco, lending the film a haunting thriller-like tone.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour 1959-France-Japan. 91 min. B/W. Produced by Anatole Dauman, Samy Halfon. Directed by Alain Resnais. Screenplay: Marguerite Duras. Cinematography: Michio Takahashi, Sacha Vierny. Music: Georges Delerue, Giovanni Fusco. Cast: Emmanuelle Riva (Elle), Eiji Okada (Lui), Bernard Fresson (The German Soldier).
Trivia: The Japanese film H Story (2001) depicts an attempt to remake Hiroshima, Mon Amour.
Last word: “Marguerite Duras and I had this idea of working in two tenses. 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.” (Resnais, interview with Joan Dupont)