A light in the darkness reveals two lovers tangled in an embrace, their faces concealed as a flurry of ash rains down on their bodies, consuming them and leaving their skin to glisten like diamonds in the night. Ash suspends the two in motion but for a stasis that is brief and swiftly cleansed by incoming rain, superseding the shimmer of ash with the undulation of intimacy. The looming but hushed voice of a man whispers: “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” As the light momentarily dims, the hands of a woman surface, now clutching the shoulder of her partner. “I saw everything” she attests, proceeding to reflect on fragments of her past: the memory of a hospital too potent to forget, the reminiscence of a museum where people wandered amid displays of charred stones and torched steel, and the sensation of having seen suspended flesh — “its agony still fresh.” She continues, now long lost in thought, and eventually begins to recall a particular day only to make note of the temperature, “10,000 degrees in Peace Square. I know it. The temperature of the sun in Peace Square.” To this, the man breaks his silence and ceases her narration, all by repeating those six simple words.
In these opening moments of Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Resnais set the stage for one of the most enigmatic and nonconforming films of the 20th century. This ten minute-long prologue was so daring and inventive that words can only do so much justice in capturing its gravity — let alone the description of a truncated excerpt. Then again, it is a task in and of itself to write about a film that still actively resists a satisfactory definition over half a century later. So how does one approach Hiroshima Mon Amour? The easy route could be to reference the endless pages of praise heaped onto it by the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma: whether it Jean-Luc Godard declaring it “Faulkner plus Stravinsky plus Picasso,” Jacques Rivette describing it as “Eisenstein within a narrative labyrinth worthy of Borges,” or Eric Rohmer hypothesizing its status as “the first modern film of sound cinema.” One might cite its hypnotic and fragmented structure, its visual poetry, or how it synthesizes a series of mature and complex themes. Otherwise, they may simply point to the powerful imagery that encompasses each and every frame. These are all adequate solutions but to truly grasp Resnais’ pioneering feature film debut is to understand the man behind the camera himself.
Prior to Hiroshima, Alain Resnais was a documentary filmmaker who already had over 20 directorial credits under his name. He focused primarily on making documentaries about historical locales, objects, and people across an international scale, also having collaborated with names such as Chris Marker. Resnais had a distinct method of shooting these films, often taking a discreet and almost disconcerting approach, unraveling images in slow and somber tracking shots as if to imitate the perspective of a tourist. The most famous of Resnais’ documentaries would be his harrowing Night and Fog, a post-World War II record of the concentration camps Auschwitz and Majdanek — a film that would make him the prime candidate for a documentary about the atomic bomb. That is, a ”Ban The Bomb” short commissioned by Anatole Dauman, a liberal producer, who intended the film to be a French-Japanese co-production. Resnais accepted the task but eventually decided that an objective document could not fully illustrate the horrors of this particular event. Instead, Resnais decided to enter the realm of narrative filmmaking and enlisted the help of screenwriter Marguerite Duras, to which Hiroshima Mon Amour was conceived.
Hiroshima is unique partly because it is rooted in fiction but stemmed out of fact. Duras’ primary inspiration for the script being D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, a humanist plea for compassion that spans nations and generations (which is fitting since Hiroshima would later be ascribed as the French New Wave’s The Birth of a Nation). The story centers around the brief romance between a Japanese architect named Lui (Eiji Okada) and a French actress named Elle (Emanuelle Riva). Set in post-war Hiroshima, Elle has arrived in the city to star in an anti-war film and, while there, meets and falls madly in love with Lui, a former soldier during World War II. Both parties are ecstatic about one another, with Elle passionately monologuing about him while Lui sneaks on set during her film shoots, but it is soon revealed that both individuals are partaking in an affair. On the final day of Elle’s shoot, she tells Lui that she will soon be leaving for France but he insists that she stay. Despite her efforts to end their relationship, he persistently pursues her and she gives in, and the two spend the day together, with Lui taking an interest in her past.
Following this, the drama becomes psychological as Elle’s repressed memories come to light and she begins to obsess with images of the past, haunted by the echo of a previous love with a German soldier. Her fixation becomes delusional as she can no longer distinguish between Lui and this past lover who was murdered in Nevers, France at the end of the war. She worries that she is being disloyal to her deceased lover but simultaneously applying the same fear to Lui, anxious that she will soon forget both. This rumination on memory is where Hiroshima Mon Amour shines. That opening sequence between the man and woman, of course, being between Elle and Lui, although it is presented as an isolated conversation existing outside of the plot. This sequence also being what remains of Resnais’ original project, it is effectively an interwoven documentary, layering post-bombing images of Hiroshima on top of Elle’s narration by way of montage — deemed Eisensteinian by Rivette, though ringing closer to Vertov, but ultimately Resnais at its core. The editing is surreal and the introduction is so immaculately strung together that it is akin to watching poetry in motion, the invention of a new language, but the essence of the conversation is this cryptic exchange on memory and reality. In Hiroshima, memory is the arbiter of trauma and Resnais presents suffering as a collective conscience. Flashbacks of Elle’s time in Nevers are juxtaposed with shots of present-day Hiroshima as if the experiences are synchronous, blurring past and present. In the eyes of Resnais, time and space are immaterial, he strives for a reconciliation of past and present trauma as one.
Elle fears that she will forget the German, her love with him once burned as bright as the sun, a brief flash like the jolt of a nuclear blast, only to dissipate as the years passed. The process repeats with Lui — soon, Elle will have seen nothing of Hiroshima — and is bound in repetition unless confronted head on. All of this is in interplay with the opening sequence and the lingering backdrop of Hiroshima, expressing public tragedy through personal means. Resnais’ implication, gesturing the inevitably of recurrence, leaves the frightening possibility of what may be set to come in the future. There are so many complex and poignant ideas that it is virtually impossible to capture them all in written form. From the promiscuity of Lui and Elle, their dynamic as an interracial couple in ‘50s Japan, to the ambiguity of their identities and purpose more as archetypes of the world conscience, veering into the sentimentality of Griffith — it really is a remarkable film. Hiroshima Mon Amour’s legacy prevails, there has never truly been anything quite like it since, layered and elegant, naturalist and never smug, it begs a watch from anyone and stands as an essential film.