Hiroshima mon amour

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #196: Alain Resnais’s Hiroshi­ma mon amour.

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Rien is, per­haps, the most beau­ti­ful word in French. In Hiroshi­ma mon amour such words of empti­ness and loss echo through­out. The open­ing sequence in par­tic­u­lar is stun­ning for its evo­ca­tion and dia­logue; it is so full of impli­ca­tion that the view­er imme­di­ate­ly suc­cumbs to its inten­si­ty. Two post-coital lovers, one Japan­ese, one French, are debat­ing the epis­te­mol­o­gy of Hiroshi­ma. The dia­logue is sim­ple but the evo­ca­tion com­plex; rais­ing ques­tions as star­tling as: Is empa­thy ulti­mate­ly a form naïveté? What does it mean to claim to have seen Hiroshi­ma, a thing that the Japan­ese man emphat­i­cal­ly denies is pos­si­ble? Dur­ing this dis­cus­sion he images on screen are attempt­ing to show us Hiroshi­ma, and although it would seem they are refut­ing the Japan­ese man’s point, they empha­size it — show­ing what used to be Hiroshi­ma — the sub­tle con of authen­tic repli­ca. The jux­ta­po­si­tion con­tin­ues when the woman describes flow­ers bloom­ing in Hiroshi­ma while the screen shows stock footage of radi­a­tion hor­rors, crum­pled build­ings, lame dogs, and peo­ple rot­ting alive. Even the con­stant­ly shift­ing score keeps the view­er from grasp­ing Resnais aim, which was prob­a­bly Resnais’s aim, at this point in the film. The quick­er the view­er is com­plete­ly unbound from a sta­ble emo­tion­al state, the bet­ter.

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When the love sto­ry kicks in it is pos­si­ble to begin to under­stand why the dia­logue sounds like poet­ry; the char­ac­ters are near to burst­ing with pent up emo­tion. We know already that the unimag­in­able and unex­pect­ed pow­er of the Hiroshi­ma bomb has left inerad­i­ca­ble marks on the Japan­ese man, but now we begin to sense [and glimpse] that there might be a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in the woman’s past. Get­ting to the meat of the inquiry takes some dig­ging, the film has lev­els with­in lev­els, like an onion or a par­fait. It turns out that the woman is in town because she’s an actress in a film about peace, a fact that is men­tioned a few times as if Resnais’s rep­e­ti­tions are intend­ed high­light anoth­er sort of self-reflex­ive naïveté, Can a film about peace alter the truth of Hiroshi­ma? As the staged peace parade pro­ceeds, it is filmed as if it was a part of the film with­in the film; thus com­plet­ing the self-reflex­ive cir­cle, Can Resnais make a film about peace that alter’s the truth of Hiroshi­ma?

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As the flash­back sequences begin to unrav­el in long­shot, as coun­ter­point to the con­sis­tent close­ups that take place in real time, the focus of the sto­ry becomes less on Hiroshi­ma and more on the woman’s past as a French girl with a Ger­man lover in Nev­ers dur­ing the war four­teen years ago. Her trau­ma is more per­son­al, but no less dev­as­tat­ing than the man’s. [There are delib­er­ate­ly no names in this film.] It begins to come clear that maybe she did have her own pri­vate Hiroshi­ma. As ter­ri­ble as this is, the true emo­tion­al toll con­tin­ues, she has begun to for­get the details of her lover. The man refers to her as “the sym­bol of love’s for­get­ful­ness.” For him, the abil­i­ty to for­get Hiroshi­ma is a source of relief, not the ter­ror that the woman feels in her loss of Nev­ers. She repels him but he pur­sues, anoth­er set of oppo­site reac­tions that occur as they begin to under­stand each oth­er. At the moment of truth they name each oth­er: Hiroshi­ma and Nev­ers.

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It would almost seem that Resnais laid a false trail in the fas­ci­nat­ing open­ing sequence and the ques­tions it rais­es. I think it was nec­es­sary for a few rea­sons. If we weren’t hooked from the first bite, the movie would have end­ed up being godaw­ful­ly bor­ing. But more impor­tant­ly, the con­text it lays and the appar­ent mis­un­der­stand­ings and tough ques­tions become respec­tive­ly inter­nal­ized and dis­card­ed as the true mean­ings emerge. I’m not going to drop a moral at the end of this review like Aesop; that would be a dis­ser­vice to the film, which offers no obvi­ous moral. Just watch it and decide for your­self.

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Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Kent Jones.
Name-drop­ping review at Pop Mat­ters.
• Clips on YouTube: [1, 2, 3].