not in our stars, but in ourselves
“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.” – Eric Rohmer, July 1959.
No kidding. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) is a gorgeous meditation on memory and forgetting, war and love, suffering and joy. With the exception of a very brief wink at Casablanca (1942), it seems entirely without cinematic antecedents: impressionistic, haptic, delirious, ringing of truth in every frame even as it presents the treachery of memory.
The story is simple enough: an unnamed French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) and an unnamed Japanese man (Eiji Okada). She is in Hiroshima to shoot a film about peace. He is an architect. They meet at a cafe and spend a passionate, tender night together, during which she insists on her impressions of Hiroshima. He tells her she is wrong, she doesn’t remember, she is not endowed with memory. After fifteen minutes of excruciating images of the aftermath of the atomic bomb, the two lovers forget remembering for a while and enjoy happiness very briefly. She is due to leave the next day, and he wants her to stay. He follows her to the set of her film, and brings her back to his house. They go to a bar and she tells him the story of her first love, when she was eighteen in Nevers, during World War II. She fell in love with a German soldier, and just when they were about to run away together, a resident of Nevers shot and killed him. She tells her Japanese lover that the only memory she has left is his name: she has forgotten his eyes, his hands. She will forget her Hiroshima love just as she forgot her Nevers love.
That is to say, not at all.
There are plenty of movies about love set against a backdrop of war: Gone With the Wind (1939) and its Russianish cousin, Doctor Zhivago (1965); the aforementioned Casablanca; The English Patient (1996); etc., etc., etc. Rohmer is right to note the uniquely postwar nature of Hiroshima – not merely for the fact that it is about a love affair that takes place after the war, but because it depicts perfectly the uncertainty and impossibility of everything after the war. In an essay called “Time Indefinite,” Kent Jones cited more of Rohmer and elaborated:
Rohmer’s remark is in perfect sync with the spirit of the film, which, as he says later in the discussion, “has a very strong sense of the future, particularly the anguish of the future.” Read again nearly half a century later, this “anguish of the future” describes the peculiar sensation that runs through all of Resnais’ films, before and after Hiroshima. In fact, it’s the anguish of past, present, and future: the need to understand exactly who and where we are in time, a need that goes perpetually unsatisfied.
After World War I, the seemingly secure old world was torn absolutely asunder. During the interwar years, economies around the world went boom and then bust. After World War II – after the world had seen the horror wrought by the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the unimaginable sadism of the Holocaust – that previously certain world seemed like a myth. Nothing was sure anymore. Hiroshima Mon Amour is the perfect time capsule of that hopeless uncertainty.
It is also a very beautiful film. Let’s not neglect that among the more philosophical discussions. The ardor between “Elle” and “Lui,” the ravishing score, the dreamy cinematography, the poetry of their conversations – it is all art of the highest caliber. Resnais’ previous film, Night and Fog (1955), is a documentary about Nazi concentration camps. It is devastating, but with extraordinary beauty – even in despair. Especially in despair, maybe. Hiroshima is an expansion of that style or theme, depending on what you think it is. I always keep the following quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory in the back of my mind, but it came roaring to the forefront as I watched. I think it’s a fitting summation of Hiroshima Mon Amour:
Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love – from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter – to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behavior of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity), the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time. It is a pernicious habit, but I can do nothing about it. It can be compared to the uncontrollable flick of an insomniac’s tongue checking a jagged tooth in the night of his mouth and bruising itself in doing so but still persevering. I have known people who, upon accidentally touching something – a doorpost, a wall – had to go through a certain very rapid and systematic sequence of manual contacts with various surfaces in the room before returning to a balanced existence. It cannot be helped; I must know where I stand, where you and my son stand. When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as a man in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of his position by making sure he is dreaming. I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.
Yes indeed, Volodya.
P.S. While we’re getting quote-happy, we may as well include this mystifyingly stupid comparison made by Leonard Maltin: “Its sexual candor and provocative ideas, wedded to a dazzlingly sophisticated visual style, made Hiroshima, Mon Amour the New Wave’s The Birth of a Nation.” Guys, I have no illusions about my skills as a film reviewer, but how is it possible that such a numbskull is rich and respected, while there are thousands of other unpaid, unsung cineastes with at least half a brain each? Cripes.