Hiroshima, Mon Amour, drama, in French with subtitles, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 4 chiles When Alain Resnais made Hiroshima, Mon Amour in 1959, the atomic devastation of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was as recent and raw a wound as the World Trade Center attack of Sept. 11, 2001, is to us today.
The American bomb that dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, brought the world face to face with the existential threat of annihilation. By 1959, the hydrogen bomb had supplanted the atomic version, its awesome fusion power as much as 1,000 times more destructive than that of its predecessor, its potential unlimited. In American schools, children were learning to “duck and cover,” taking refuge from the end of the world by hiding under their desks. And in Paris, a documentary filmmaker named Alain Resnais was approached by the producers of Night and Fog, his critically acclaimed 1955 film on Nazi concentration camps, with a commission to make a documentary about Hiroshima.
Resnais turned the project down. How could you make a meaningful documentary about something so incomprehensibly terrible? But a conversation with a friend, the novelist Marguerite Duras, led to an approach he thought would work — a melding of documentary and fiction, overlaid with memory, moving back and forth in time — as a way of getting at the subject that would suggest the horrors of Hiroshima without trying to define them.
With its innovative, impressionistic structure, Hiroshima, Mon Amour is often cited as one of the most influential films of the 20th century. It was unlike anything that had come before. As Resnais’ contemporary Jean-Luc Godard put it, “The very first thing that strikes you about this film is that it is totally devoid of any cinematic references. You can describe Hiroshima as Faulkner plus Stravinsky, but you can’t identify it as such and such a film-maker plus such and such another.”
Today the narrative and editing techniques Resnais developed have been absorbed into the language of film, and the movie doesn’t seem as radical as it did when it first opened in New York in the spring of 1960, when it entranced and baffled audiences and critics in equal measure. It has lost some of its strangeness, but it still has the power to mesmerize.
With its screenplay by Duras steeping it in literary idiom, the film opens with a close-up of the naked bodies of two lovers entwined on a bed. We see arms, hands, and legs, but no faces, as the woman talks of what she has seen in Hiroshima — what she has learned from newsreels, photos, hospitals, museums — her account accompanied by documentary film clips of the horrors of the bomb’s aftermath; and the man’s Japanese-accented voice intones, repeatedly, “Tu n’as rien vu á Hiroshima” (You saw nothing in Hiroshima).
When the camera finally pulls back, we are with a beautiful young couple, a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) who has come to make a film about peace, and a
Eiji Okada and Emmanuelle Riva