Between TikToks and cooking videos on social media, you may have noticed something else last week. On August 6th, the world remembered the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. In the United States and other allied countries, this was the way to end a horrific war, a means to an end. To others however, this was just the beginning of their true suffering. A poignant French New Wave film brings all of this and more into question: Hiroshima mon amour (1959).
This was a film that I studied in college as an introduction to the french language and it will go down as one of my favorite movies for the rest of my life. (Sidenote: My french professor from college still reaches out when selecting her films each year because of how much I loved this film and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing). This film is full of subtle cinematography, heavy juxtapositions and an effortless timelessness. On the surface, the film can seem almost dull – there is no heavy action sequence, there are only two characters and the timeline covers about 48 hours of their story.
Here’s a little background
Hiroshima mon amour is considered to be one of the most influential works in the history of cinema; the brainchild of author Marguerite Duras (Moderato Cantabile 1958) and New Wave director Alain Resnais. Resnais was known for his documentary work on Night and Fog (1956) and his contributions to Cahier du Cinéma and the Left Bank, a faction of the French New Wave. Originally starting as a documentary, it was filmed in France and Japan in 1959. The story traces the devastation of the bombing of Hiroshima from two viewpoints: a French actress and a Japanese architect who serendipitously meet for a weekend tryst in 1957. Not to mention that actor Eiji Okada did not speak a lick of French and had to learn it phonetically for the film; kudos to that.
Why everyone should watch it
The intro is hands down a work of art – an absolute masterpiece that sets the tone for the entire film. A compilation of two bodies stuck in an embrace which at first appears normal, then the bodies are covered in ash, glitter and sweat. Paired with an almost bouncy soundtrack, a voice over repeats for a few minutes – switching between Him and Her: “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing” “I saw everything. Everything”. This subtle yet daring intro is designed to pique the viewer’s interest for the rest of the film. How can one see a place that was once suffering the impossible? How can one truly know a place like that? Duras in her screenplay synopsis explains: “Every gesture, every word, takes on an aura of meaning that transcends its literal meaning.”
The main characters throughout the film are never named. Referred to in the script as simply ‘the French woman’ and ‘the Japanese man’ or the third, most prevalent character ‘the German’, this creates a unique atmosphere for the story. This could have happened between anyone. There is one story, but many applicable characters throughout the world. Even when you are fully entrenched in their affair, they are still compartmentalizing in a way. They have one shared trauma but the reactions are so incredibly different between the two.
French New Wave was all about breaking the boundaries of ‘Cinéma du papa’, the traditional predecessor. However, Hiroshima mon amour was relatively tame when it came to cinematography compared to À bout de Souffle (1960) or Jules et Jim (1962). Due to Resnais experience working as a documentarian, there are elements of this in the film like showing news clips of the injured, deformities of the children born in the wake of the bomb. In some moments the film feels almost like a propaganda piece rather than a love story. The film was actually financed by Japan which came with a list of requirements: to be partially shot in France and Japan, include a star from both countries and use local technical crews when shooting. While both film crews were somewhat kept in the dark, this created a unique film – shot from two different cameras on two different types of film, allowing the viewer to easily identify what is the present and what is a flashback.
The themes of Hiroshima mon amour are almost always in contrast: life and death, love and loss, he and she, remembering and forgetting, the German and the Japanese, present and past and future. There is a portion of the screenplay that always sticks out in my mind. Visually, a first person point of view wanders down the rebuilt streets of Hiroshima. A voice-over of the french woman hauntingly tells you, “I meet you. I remember you. Who are you? You destroy me. You’re so good for me… Plenty of time. Please. Take me. Deform me, make me ugly. Why not you?”. Each of these comments is destined for a different person. She meets the Japanese man, but remembers the German man. The German man destroys her, but the Japanese man is so good to her. She is continuously conflicted with the juxtapositions.
A very subtle note in the film is that the French woman is constantly dissociating. In 1959, the understanding of mental illness wasn’t as advanced as today, but the film is refreshingly modern in some ways. Referring to her time in Nevers (past), she says, “Madness is like intelligence, you know. You can’t explain it. Just like intelligence. It comes on you, it fills you and then you understand it. But when it goes away you can’t understand it at all any longer.” In my interpretation, the madness she’s referring to is depression as a direct result of losing her first love. Later she explains, “That was what my madness was. I was mad with hate. I had the impression it would be possible to make a real career of hate. All I cared about was hate.” She experienced a horrific trauma at a young age and was ostracized by her society – thanks to a little thing called les tondues. Les tondues or Femmes tondues was a public humiliation for ‘collaboration with the occupier’ which resulted in the shearing of one’s head. Towards the end of the film, she dissociates while discussing her past with the Japanese man. She begins speaking to him as if he was the German who died – in part, because they are the same person to her: the ‘enemy’, the forbidden love.
Filmmaker Eric Rohmer said it best when discussing Hiroshima mon amour, “I think that in a few years, in ten, twenty, or thirty years, we will know whether Hiroshima mon amour was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema”. The film received critical acclaim internationally. At the time, the sensitive subject matter did receive some scorn from certain countries (the United States), however the timelessness of the tale has allowed this film to go down as one of the must see classics.