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.
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?
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.
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.