This is a review of Hiroshima, Mon Amour that I wrote
in the summer of 1999 while taking a creative writing course at Northwestern
University's Center for Talent Development.
Even after I first developed an interest in film, I put off watching any foreign films. I
didn't know any foreign languages that well, and subtitles were always a distraction.
Still, the more I read about the revolutionary "New Wave" French directors in the 1960's,
the more I wanted to see some of their films. My dilemma was solved when my English
teacher (another cinemaniac) gave me a copy of Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I had read
very little about this movie, but the video cover said that it was a "stunning example of
the French 'New Wave' film."
The New Wave started in the late 1950's, when a group of French film critics, including
Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Luc Godard, began proclaiming
that cinema was too tied to the literary and theatrical traditions and needed to break
free and become its own art form. In 1959, Truffaut made the first "New Wave" film, The
Four Hundred Blows, which was an international success. Alain Resnais, who directed
Hiroshima, Mon Amour, was not a film critic like the others, but he was swept up in
their movement nevertheless. He had achieved some acclaim with his Holocaust documentary,
Night and Fog, and was given funding to do a similar documentary on the effects of
the atomic bomb.
Somewhere along the line, Resnais dropped the idea of a documentary and decided to make a
fictional story, detailing the romance between a married French actress and an also
married Japanese architect. The actress has come to Japan to make an anti-war film. The
architect has studied politics and thus knows French, at the time the language of
diplomacy. As a result, except for a few phrases in English and Japanese, the entire film
is in French.
The opening consists of images of intertwined bodies interjected with footage of the
aftereffects of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A woman's voice is heard
stating that she has seen the museums and the film, and she knows what happened in
Hiroshima. A man's voice softly but firmly contradicts everything she says, stating
"You saw nothing in Hiroshima." In spite of its content, the photography has a beautiful
and hypnotic quality to it, and the dialogue is spoken in an almost poetic sense. After
this sequence, we actually meet the two characters (virtually the only ones in the movie).
This is followed by one of the most important shots in cinema history. As the Japanese
man lies in bed, the woman stands and looks at him. Her eyes travel down the length of
his arm, stopping at his hand. All of a sudden, the background changes, and we see
another hand and another arm. A split second later everything is back to normal.
Why is that shot so important? Because it showed, without any sort of literary or
theatrical technique, the working of the inner mind. It created a uniquely cinematic
metaphor, with nothing but appearances marking the similarity between the two images in
the woman's mind. It was the birth of the subliminal flashback, a technique which has
since been overused to the point of cliche. And it introduced the technique which would
underscore the entirety of the rest of the film.
As the film progresses, the woman relates to the man a story which she had long
repressed - the story of her love for a German soldier during the occupation of
World War II. He was killed on the last day of fighting, right before they were to leave
her home city of Nevers.
Her telling of this story is without doubt one of the most lyrical sequences ever put on
film. She relates the story in short, poetic bursts of dialogue, in an elliptic style
that often employs the wrong pronoun. (She addresses both the soldier and her current
lover as "you.") As she speaks, a series of very short, almost subliminal, images are
seen. The images flow in a hypnotic fashion, as the story sweeps along.
The black-and-white photography throughout the entire movie is excellent. There are a
number of lyrical gliding shots of Nevers and Hiroshima that are intercut, suggesting a
parallel between them (once again, without literary or theatrical qualities).
I was fortunate in that my school library had a copy of the screenplay of Hiroshima,
Mon Amour, by Marguerite Duras. Reading it, I was astonished to find the amount of
thought that Duras had put into the characters. The actual dialogue revealed only the
bare necessities; the characters were not even given names. (The screenplay refers to
them by the names of the actors who played them.) But there were separate sections where
Duras detailed the personalities of the characters, as well as the "personalities" of
their settings. This was a complete difference from American films, where screenwriters
often use a great deal of unnecessary dialogue to "flesh out" their characters instead of
letting the actors fill in the pieces for themselves.
What did the film actually mean? I haven't the slightest idea. I think it suggested that
although few things can match the cataclysmic effect of something like Hiroshima, every
person has some sort of hidden trauma that is their personal "Hiroshima." I think it may
also have been about storytelling, and how relating a memory can change how one feels
about it. I'm sure it had something to do with the clash of Eastern and Western cultures,
and there was probably an anti-war message in there too. As with many great works of art,
all the answers are not provided. But there is no doubt in my mind that Hiroshima, Mon
Amour is truly a great work of art. I enjoy movies which show me things I haven't
seen before, and this film, with its poetry of hypnotic images and its glimpse into the
workings of the inner mind, is true cinema - something I had never seen before, and
something which many will never have the privilege of seeing.