The first thing we see is a textured image of ash covered bodies. Indistinctly illuminated limbs are entwined in what appears to be a passionate embrace. Glistening particles of dust sprinkle down like snowfall. Then comes the dialogue. A woman recalls the devastating effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945. She says she saw it all. A man says she didn’t see a thing. “How could I not have seen it?” she questions. We see images of it, but some of it is staged, presented for the camera, possibly from her point of view. That is, if she’s telling the truth. There is a graphically unsettling montage of photographs, reconstructions, and Japanese films, all chronicling the attack; there is a morbid museum containing artifacts of that fateful day, haunting reminders of the physical and material destruction. There are also atomic tour busses and gift shops. Are there explanations to be found in these images, those real and those created, those authentic and those developed into a capitalistic commodity? We hear statistics and see newsreels—documentary evidence. Do these make her memories real? Do they help us to understand what the explosion was like?
Though stated far less poetically expressive than the film itself is, this is essentially how Hiroshima mon amour begins. Alain Resnais’ staggering 1959 work, a French/Japanese coproduction, begins with this assembly of heart wrenching imagery and disembodied voices—a man and a woman’s—lasting for about 15 minutes. The physical experience of the then and now is represented by the depiction of this ash and body fusion, signifiers of death and life. During this abstract compilation, that which is vividly realistic or sufficiently fabricated is gradually given a thematic crescendo, as from the horror comes rebirth, renewal, survival, strength, and perseverance. The Japanese people, so utterly devastated by the assault, carry on and rebuild. What’s more is the possibility that love, too, can emerge from the ruins. Perhaps not immediately, perhaps not in 1945, but in 1959, years later, when superficial and far deeper wounds have both been healed.
This is where the film proper starts, and with this powerful preamble, Hiroshima mon amour establishes a context that will temper every scene to follow. Ultimately, it’s a love story, but it’s a love story irreversibly influenced by war. As Resnais scholar François Thomas suggests in an interview contained on the outstanding new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, Hiroshima mon amour exists against something of an atomic landscape, where the bomb is not front and center, as it is in the opening, but hovering omnipresent in the background.
She is “Elle” (Emmanuelle Riva, in her first leading film role). He is “Lui” (Eiji Okada, a veteran with more than 25 films to his credit). She is French. He is Japanese. Both are in their early 20s and both are never named. She is an actress in Hiroshima to make a “film about peace.” They meet, they fall in love; they are both married, they must leave one another. Hiroshima mon amour is, then, a love story.
But that’s not really what the film is about. Like Resnais’ brilliant follow-up, Last Year at Marienbad (1961),Hiroshima mon amour is about the fallibility and function of memory, about where lies and truth merge and what distinguishes one or the other, and whether or not that designation is subjective or objective. “Have you ever noticed people have a way of noticing what they want?” he says. “I noticed you. That’s all.” Is that all? Do the past and the context of the present cease in their importance when trumped by an instantaneous, passionate observation? Is that where truth lies?
There’s a break in the developing romance when, over several glasses of beer, she recounts a moment from her past, one she did actually experience (we suppose). In her hometown of Nevers, during the occupation, she has a brief relationship with a German soldier. She is disgraced and condemned, by her family and her community. Her German lover is killed and she is stowed away in a cellar, only later being allowed to flee during night. During her bicycle trek to Paris, Hiroshima is attacked (so she wasn’t, in fact, there). In recounting this period in her life, she tells “Lui” just enough, but does she tell him, and therefore us, everything? We see her narrative in flashback, but given the nature of Hiroshima mon amour, how those events truly transpired is up for debate. In any case, what she has just told him she hasn’t told anyone, not even her husband. This makes “Lui” ecstatic. He’s overjoyed to be the only one who knows, to be the only one to have shared in this private memory. It is, to him, the ultimate evidence of their intimacy and trust. In this memory is their deepest love. Perhaps paradoxically, though, in retelling this personal experience, she is also keeping alive her deceased lover, if only though her memory and her recitation, even perhaps projecting their love onto that which she now has with “Lui,” which is likewise ill fated.
If the basic love story of Hiroshima mon amour comes across as less than unique—a brief encounter between doomed lovers—Resnais’ presentation amplifies the romance to make it something special. To a certain extent, Resnais got away from this after the 1960s, but here, as much as anywhere else in his early oeuvre, every image is so obviously constructed with great care that even the most banal moments are visually remarkable. Every single shot is lit and composed in such an overtly formalized fashion that a still frame taken from any part of the film is, in itself, even out of context, truly a thing of beauty.
All technical facets of Hiroshima mon amour are exceptional, making it the tremendous film that it is on so many levels. The black and white cinematography by Michio Takahashi and Sacha Vierny is dazzling (Vierny, who worked with Resnais on the great 1955 short Night and Fog, as well as Last Year at Marienbad). In their respective scenes and countries, Takahashi and Vierny utilize differing film stocks, focal lengths, and assorted visual strategies, yet everything seamlessly flows into the whole. Also receiving dual credit are the film’s composers, Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco. While this film was released before both musicians would do their finest and most recognizable work — for Godard and Truffaut in the case of Delerue, for Antonioni, specifically L’Avventura (1960), L’Eclisse (1962), and Red Desert (1964), in the case of Fusco — their work on Hiroshima mon amour combines their particular talents for romanticism and other-worldly unease. As Kent Jones notes in an essay that accompanies the Criterion release, “It’s possible that Hiroshima mon amour is the first modern sound film in every aspect of its conception and execution—construction, rhythm, dialogue, performance style, philosophical outlook, and even musical score.” One can see how the visual and aural so expertly mesh when “Elle” walks the neon Hiroshima streets one evening, the images of which are cut with shots of the dilapidated, less modern Nevers. Over this is the score: modern, jazzy, wistful. The result is a dual city symphony that reflects the vibrant present and the forlorn past of the two locations and of the young woman herself.
Save for the opening of the film, none of this would work as well as it does were it not for Riva and Okada. Spurred on by Marguerite Duras’ Oscar-nominated screenplay, a work of ostentatious stylization in the best possible sense, Riva and Okada epitomize the type of “art film” acting of the period, with gestures, comments, and emotions all heightened and not always reasonable, yet no less engaging.
There is the sense throughout Hiroshima mon amour that the two characters aren’t necessarily what they seem, that they aren’t singular people but are representative of their nationalities, and that theirs is a cultural romance as much as it is an individual one. The movie began as a documentary short about the bomb (presumably in the form of the completed film’s opening). Only later did Resnais and Duras decide to fashion a fictional story from the actual events. So perhaps as a result, the literal relationship between “Elle” and “Lui” is somewhat secondary; their deeper connection is a symbolic reckoning of French and Japanese reactions to the war, specifically the bombing, at the time and as years pass. Such an interpretation is hammered home in the film’s concluding sequence, when “Elle” and “Lui” call each other by their respective birth cities rather than their real names.
Finally, it’s hard to watch Hiroshima mon amour and not politicize the film, especially when viewing it in America and, I would assume, Japan. When “Lui” asks “Elle” what the bombing meant in France, she says it was mostly surprise in the fact that they [the United States] dared to do it, and that they succeeded—in dropping the bomb, in ending the war, both? Knowing what we know of the catastrophic horror and the bomb’s terrible impact, maybe that’s how Americans see it now, or at least some of us: pure shock that it ever even happened, amazement that life went on. As Resnais tackles the subject, broadens the narrative to integrate a romance, and gives it all such energy and emotion, we also come away somewhat satisfied, satisfied in the fact that love and passion carried on, even in war-ravaged Hiroshima.