There is an almost disorienting effect to the first fifteen minutes or so of Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour”. A man and a women, their faces obscured by Resnais’ focus on their deep embrace, share an intimate moment while their skin is covered by dust and ash. The romantic but disturbingly metaphoric shot is intermittently broken up by troubling newsreel footage showing the effects of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, particularly to its people. A coded, hypnotic back-and-forth between the man and woman speak poetically of memory and denial.
This opening, like the film itself, has been pondered and studied since the movie opened in 1959. It was Resnais’ debut feature and is considered a pivotal film in the French New Wave. Resnais was lauded by his contemporaries for his unique approach highlighted by his gutsy subject matter and nonlinear storytelling. Marguerite Duras was instrumental. She wrote the screenplay and would earn an Academy Award nomination for her work.
The story basically revolves around a continued conversation broken up over a 36 hour span in Hiroshima and takes place twelve years after the war. A French actress filming a movie about peace has an overnight fling with a Japanese architect. Known only to us as He and She, The two have lives deeply influenced by the bombing of Hiroshima. His is more literal while hers is metaphorical. They embark on an extended conversation that unveils deep scars from the past and desperation and uncertainty of the future.
To divulge any more details about the plot would be doing a disservice to how Resnais and Duras intend for their story to unfold. You could call it an emotional contemplation but it turns from that and becomes a fascinating character examination. Memories are shown through quick fragmented flashbacks – a clever device which represents the resurfacing of suppressed pieces of information. And the nonlinear approach challenges us to piece together the bits of personal history we are fed.
The true centerpiece of the experience is Emmanuelle Riva. You may remember her from her Oscar nominated performance in Michael Haneke’s “Amour”. Riva immediately becomes a mesmerizing figure. Each movement and expression down to the most precise nuance hint at her character’s burdened soul. Even smiles feel like carefully constructed facades. Riva channels a genuine melancholy that intensifies with each new bit of information. She sells it as coming from a place considerably deeper than the “dubious morals” she speaks of at one point in the film.
Resnais’ camera loves Riva and it concentrates on her abilities to tell us so much often without a word of dialogue. Eiji Okada plays ‘He’ who often serves as our eyes. Like us, his eyes are constantly watching this mysterious woman with fascination and curiosity. The relationship between the two struggles to find sure footing and Resnais emphasizes the point of the past intruding on the present. It’s an everpresent them throughout the entire picture.
“Hiroshima Mon Amour” became a highlight of Left Bank filmmaking and a showcase of the French New Wave’s bold creative direction. It’s interesting to note that Alain Resnais initially set out to make a documentary and that original vision influences the early parts of the film. But from there it blossoms into a poignant character drama that presents its story by its own unique set of rules. It can be perplexing out of the gate, but once you are in tune with what Resnais is doing it becomes a mesmerizing cinematic experience.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS