dir. alain resnais, 1959, france
Is Hiroshima mon amour the story of a woman? Or is it the story of a place where a tragedy has occurred? Or of two places, housing two separate tragedies, one massive and the other private? In a sense, these questions belong to the film itself. The fact that Hiroshima continues to resist a comforting sense of definition almost fifty years after its release may help to account for Resnais’ nervousness when he set off for the shoot in Japan. He was convinced that his film was going to fall apart, but the irony is that he and Duras had never meant for it to come together in the first place. What they created, with the greatest delicacy and emotional and physical precision, was an anxious aesthetic object, as unsettled over its own identity and sense of direction as the world was unsettled over how to go about its business after the cataclysmic horror of World War II. With its narrative of an actress going to Hiroshima (to play a part in a film “about peace”) expecting to erase her tragic past, only to see her memories magnified by the greater collective memory of atomic destruction, Hiroshima never locates a fixed point toward which emotion, morality and ethics gravitate. The magnificent Emmanuelle Riva is less the “star” of the film than its primary “soloist,” to extend the musical metaphor––in comparison, Eiji Okada’s architect-lover is more of a first violin type. There is a dominant motif, which is the sense of being overpowered, ravished, taken––a French woman who wants to be overpowered by her Japanese lover (“Take me. Deform me, make me ugly”), an Asian man who is consumed by his Western lover’s beauty and unknowability, a fictional peace rally overwhelmed by its real-life antecedent, everyday reality drowned out by a flood of memories, a city devastated by nuclear force.
“Hi-ro-shi-ma. That’s your name.” “That’s my name. Yes. Your name is Nevers. Ne-vers in France.” Appropriately for a film about the anxiety of irresolution, the end doesn’t tie up loose ends as much as it suggests a new and sober starting point. It’s a moment of realization that feels neither tragic nor affirmative, just crushingly exact. But there is another endpoint, a spiritual one, and it comes early—the final statement of the film’s famous and eternally alarming opening section. We are looking at shots of a rebuilt Hiroshima, a tourist attraction less than fifteen years after it had been levelled, probably filled with people like Riva’s actress, unconsciously and mistakenly expecting to see their own personal tragedies rendered insignificant in the shadow of a monumental tragedy. Resnais’ beautifully calibrated images move in sinuous counterpoint to Duras’––and Riva’s––verbal music. And we hear the actress’ sad voice carefully reciting the words that still ring true today, and probably always will:
“Listen to me. I know something else. It will begin all over again. Two hundred thousand dead. Eighty thousand wounded. In nine seconds. These figures are official. It will begin all over again. It will be ten thousand degrees on the earth. Ten thousand suns, they will say. The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. A whole city will be raised from the earth and fall back in ashes….”
from criterion essay by kent jones