Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour" at the New York Film Festival on October 10th

Emmanuelle Riva and Eijii Okada in a newly restored print of Hiroshima Mon Amour, a Rialto Pictures Release. (Photo courtesy of The New York Film Festival.)

On Friday, October 10th the New York Film Festival will screen a beautiful, newly restored print of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), a movie which should be seen on the big screen. (It is in French, with English subtitles.)

The first time I saw it, I was in college. It was the mid-1970s, and American troops were coming home from a bitterly contested war in Vietnam. The images of the 1968 Mi Lai massacre of nearly five hundred civilians by American soldiers was fresh in everyone’s mind. That “conflict” in Southeast Asia, which devastated our generation, paled in comparison to what happened in 1945: In August of that year, American pilots dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. We were the first generation of Americans marked by the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and, like every other human being on the planet then, the first to confront the threat of nuclear annihilation.

After the screening, our professor asked us what Resnais' movie had to do with the war. Which war, someone asked, and there was laughter, perhaps to break the tension, as most of us were utterly baffled by the three storylines in Hiroshima Mon Amour. One, the past bombing of Hiroshima, is inferred by Resnais’s setting of the film in that city. The second is about the brief affair between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) who is there to make a movie about it, and the French-speaking Japanese architect (Eijii Okada) she meets at a party. The third recounts the unnamed actress’s memories of her wartime romance with an enemy soldier, in the village of Nevers, which she confesses to her Japanese lover. While we students were eager to speak about Resnais’s sublime framing and editing, and Giovanni Fusco’s wonderful solo piano theme, no one wanted to venture a guess at what the movie was really about.

Most of us had seen only one other Resnais film, his documentary short about the Nazi death camps, Night and Fog (1955). Like Hiroshima Mon Amour, and many of the director’s movies to come, it is about the nature of memory, and was narrated by a camp survivor. Both films include archival footage. Hiroshima Mon Amour was Resnais’s first narrative feature, although it had begun as a documentary; a producer, impressed with Night and Fog, asked the filmmaker to make a similar movie about Hiroshima. Shortly after he began making the film, Resnais changed course and commissioned the well-known French novelist Marguerite Duras to write a screenplay. That is when it became the French woman’s story.

Hiroshima Mon Amour sometimes leaves viewers confused about whether they are in the “present,” in Hiroshima, or in the French woman’s memory of her affair with a German solider. The movie’s “past” intrudes, visually, upon the “present.” As contemporary viewers, we are more accustomed to this technique than audiences were in 1959, although the edits are still jarring. Perhaps a better example of Resnais’s contribution to the cinematic art form is in the parade sequence, when a banner appears in the bottom left of the frame and slowly moves out of the frame, standing in for the person holding it as he or she passes by and as the lovers look on. Borrowing a term from literature, film critics call the banner a “synecdoche,” a part that stands in for the whole. Filmmaker Robert Bresson is also famous for this shot, especially because he expanded it with the use of sound.

Now to the question of whether Hiroshima Mon Amour is about war: It is, but only tangentially. Resnais’s movie is the story of the French woman’s wartime memory of her first love who was an enemy of the French, and the public disgrace she underwent when the affair was discovered—when the German lay dying, having been shot by a villager, and she kneeled by his side. These characters and that story were conceived by another woman who harbored memories of a forbidden love. Marguerite Duras was born in Vietnam, in what was then French Indochina.

Her parents emigrated when her father secured a job there, but he died soon after their arrival, leaving her mother to raise three children on a teacher’s salary. Duras’s childhood was marked by poverty. Then, as a teenage girl, she met an affluent Chinese businessman with whom she had a secret but rather longstanding affair. In a 1985 television interview, she said her mother was convinced of her “absolute degradation,” and at one point threatened to throw her daughter out of their home. She recounted these memories in her novel, “The Lover” (1984), although she had obviously told her story years earlier in Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Emmanuelle Riva’s character had never told anyone, not even her husband, about her bittersweet memory of that wartime romance, but in Hiroshima, she confesses it to a stranger, a wonderful man who believes he is lucky to be entrusted with such a reminiscence. At some point, she asks: “How could I have forgotten so much love?” Actually, Duras and her character have too long lived in the past. Hiroshima, the ruined city, and the Japanese architect who is rebuilding it, are metaphors for the French woman’s process of reclamation, of her quest to heal her younger self. That verboten love was her initial encounter with the Other, a first step to claiming her identity. This time, instead of despair over the betrayal of her family, who hid her in a basement after the war, she feels happy. She speaks to her Japanese lover as though she were once again conversing with the German soldier. Maybe, she ruminates, she will return to Nevers. It is another name for the place where the bittersweet memories reside that, at some point in the course of one’s life, must be reclaimed.

Maria Garcia