Alain Resnais’ feature debut Hiroshima mon amour is now available on DVD, over half a century since its initial release. It is the perfect time for a re-evaluation of the film for, despite it clearly being a product of its time, it nevertheless comes across as imaginative in its narrative and style as it ever did.
Fourteen years after the destruction of Hiroshima by the first deliberate use of nuclear weapons against a populace, the city is still trying to come to terms with the legacy of that horrific event. Peace is a long-term desire and a French actress is working in Hiroshima to shoot a film on the subject. She is trying to put the city’s history into perspective by seeking a personal understanding of the horrors of that event. She also begins a passionate affair with a Japanese man, but they are both all too aware of the likely brevity of their romance as well as the way that their lives have been affected by their previous amorous encounters.
Hiroshima mon amour covers a vast array of themes, at times in a manner that is still shocking with its harsh use of realism, but it is also a character based drama that is both absorbing and intense. The link between different cultures developing an understanding for each other and the way that the past has an unavoidable impact on the present is made clear from the very opening, which startlingly cross-cuts between the artfully composed minimalism of the two lovers’ naked embraces (Sacha Vierny’s cinematography is quite simply stunning) with scenes of Hiroshima’s dreadful past revealed through the nuclear bomb’s effects on the citizens, showing death, injury and mutilation. But Hiroshima mon amour, like Resnais’ following film Last Year in Marienbad (1961), is primarily about a romance between two people – a varied and changing relationship that involves time and location. The way the two desire each other is revealed through their cultural differences, their past relationships and their attitudes to war and enemies.
The film is at its most intriguing in the way that it develops its structure, as it flits between the microcosmic romance and epic real world events. Particularly important is the way that the media forms a fundamental part of the story. Hiroshima mon amour deliberately uses documentary footage but also recreates actuality as a media concept through depicting the fictional filmmaking of past events and also media constructed protest marches. This makes the audience ask questions about the actual atrocity and the way that it is represented – what is genuine and what is created, what is reality and how is it chosen and edited for your viewing experience? This emphasises documentary as cinematic manipulation. When it is examined through this multi-perspective, multi-realism approach the declaration that ‘You saw nothing in Hiroshima, nothing’ does not remove the fact that depicting the detail of the event and its outcomes are clearly signposted in a way that is as horrifically, truthfully necessary as it is powerfully, fictionally important to the narrative.
Overall this is an occasionally confrontational but also a tender film which addresses many issues that emerged from World War 2, especially those of the relationships between people, no matter how brief or uncertain. The combination of superior acting, enthralling soundtrack and beautiful cinematography are enhanced by a structural editing technique that engages, advances and questions at the same time. Not an easy film to watch but certainly one that exposes horrors and actualities in a way that is moving, informative and necessarily shocking. It is an important examination of humanity, horror and artistry that works in a fully engaging and utterly compelling manner.