Alain Resnais: Hiroshima mon amour

Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.

Hiroshim mon amour
d. Alain Resnais (1959)
Spine: #196
Blu-ray Release Date: July 14, 2015

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.

Following the success of Night and Fog, the acclaimed documentary on the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, the director Alain Resnais was asked to direct a short documentary about the atomic bomb, meant to be the first French-Japanese coproduction. Struggling with the idea (and recognizing that the Japanese had already created an important documentary on the subject), he finally told his producer, perhaps only joking, that he could only do the film if the script were by the experimental novelist Marguerite Duras. And so the short documentary about the atomic bomb evolved and became the masterful, beautiful, and supremely enigmatic 90-minute film — deliberately created in two tenses — about tragedy and memory and the brittle nature of time, Hiroshima mon amour, which is out today in a lovely Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection. Right now Barnes and Noble is running a 50%-off sale on all Criterion titles. Of the most recent releases, many of which are superb, this is the one I’d most highly recommend.

Hiroshima mon amour

The first fifteen minutes of the film showcase the talents of both Resnais and Duras. The visuals (other than the initial image which I’ll return to in a moment) suggest a mini-documentary about the tragic results of the atomic bomb. We see footage of victims, with various deformities or burn scars or missing limbs. We see a museum that tries to commemorate the horrors with jars of human skin. We see children born a decade after the tragedy visiting these museums, seeing the footage, and we wonder just how such an immense horror from a past that both is and is not theirs is entering their consciousness.

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Meanwhile, on top of the image, we get a strange dialogue between a man and a woman. Sometimes the dialogue lines up with the images on the screen — such as when the woman says she remembers going to the hospital in Hiroshima and we see dreamy shots of hospital corridors — but most of the time it does not. Most of the time the man tells the woman she was not there, does not remember what she says. These are the two people we first see when the film lights up, in that initial image I mentioned above, only their presence on the screen is limited to two torsos, locked in a passionate embrace and covered, it seems, by fine ash. Indeed, though they move, they bring to mind the physical state and emotional poses of bodies recovered from ancient tragedies, like the explosion of Pompeii. The ash on their bodies is so fine it looks more like the bodies are made of ash rather than covered in ash. The scene progresses, and the ash becomes damp, more muddy, until it finally dissolves and we get two uncovered, physically beautiful, bodies in embrace. Their skin is naked and sensitive and completely present, unlike the skin we see missing from the bodies of the victims or preserved in the bottles in the museum.

Over the course of this fifteen minute prologue, the woman tells the man that he’s destroying her, that he’s good for her. Duras revels in such seemingly contradictions, though the contradiction is, of course, nothing of the sort. This is a film about many things, but particularly it is about making raw, about removing the caky dust that — in our relationships, yes, but mostly in ourselves — prevent us from feeling, from remembering, and from, in a way, living.

The woman (neither the man nor the woman is named) is played by the beautiful Emmanuelle Riva, in her debut (she is the remarkable actress who in 2013, at age 86, was nominated for the Academy Award for her role in Michael Haneke’s Amour). The man is played by Eiji Okado, whom I’ve only seen otherwise in the crazy Japanese science fiction flick, The X from Outer Space.

“She” (as she is credited) is a French actress working in Hiroshima on a film about peace. “He” is a Japanese architect who lives in the country but who works in Hiroshima. They met probably only a night or two ago, and they’re both taking advantage of the short time they have to engage in a whirlwind fling, though both are married, not unhappily. She’s going back to France the next day. She has no interest in delaying her departure, though he seems to feel there’s something deeper going on.

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Interestingly, this film that began its production life as a documentary about the atomic bomb is focused on Emmanuelle Riva’s French woman. Riva is the star, and — quick aside — even in this debut role it is rather easy to see why so many of the greatest directors have wanted to work with her across the decades. This film is experimental and conceptual on so many levels it seems impossible it could have worked without Riva’s strong performance, in which she covers a vast range of emotions and their repression. Okada does a fine job supporting and simultaneously pushing Riva’s character along her path of self-annihilation and rebirth.

Her own past has a very personal, deeply felt tragedy that brings to mind the war-time fate of Arletty, the star of Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise. This visit to Hiroshima and this affair with the Japanese man start to unsettle old, repressed memories.

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Her past jumps to us in quick cuts, as it must feel to her, unwelcome and even almost unfamiliar in this new world. Though many prior films had utilized the flashback to great effect (indeed, I reviewed one, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, just last week), Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour is notable for its deliberate attempt to show the past not as a flashback but as an intrusion on the present: “Marguerite Duras and I had this idea of working in two tenses. The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback.” That quote is taken from the essay by Kent Jones that comes with the disc. When told by a producer that breaks with chronology were nothing new — the producer brought up Citizen Kane — Resnais replied: “Yes, but in my film time is shattered.”

And he’s right, and it works just the way I imagine he wanted it to.


Supplements:

  • The disc begins with two interviews, one from 1961 and one from 1980, with director Alain Resnais. The first one, running just under six minutes, is an excerpt from a television program called Cinépanorama, in which Resnais talks about his early career. The second one, running just under eleven minutes, is an excerpt from a radio program called Le cinéma des cinéastes, in which Resnais focuses in particular on Hiroshima mon amour.
  • Next we get two interviews, one from 1959 and one from 2003, with Emmanuelle Riva. The first one, again at just under six minutes, was made while Riva was at the Cannes Film Festival. The second, coming in just over nineteen minutes, was made by the Criterion Collection upon the occasion of their DVD release.
  • We then get a new interview conducted by Criterion just this past March and running twenty-six minutes, with film scholar François Thomas, author of L’atelier d’Alain Resnais.
  • Next we have “Memory and Meaning,” another new interview from March, with Tim Page, professor of music and journalism at USC, talking in particular about Giovanni Fusco and Georges Delerue. The interview, coming in at ten minutes, is nicely interspersed with moments from the film with its score to underline what Page is talking about.
  • In 2013, the film was restored by Argo Films, the Technicolor Foundation, the Groupama Gan Foundation, and the Cineteca di Bologna. The next feature, called “Revoir Hiroshima,” is a fascinating look at that process, coming in at eleven minutes.
  • Thankfully, this Blu-ray upgrade retains from the DVD my favorite feature, an audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie.
  • The disc comes with a nice booklet that contains an essay by critic Kent Jones and excerpts from a 1959 Cahier du cinema roundtable discussion about the film. It’s wonderful to read the discussion these soon-to-be titans of cinema had about Resnais’ wonderful film.

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