Classic Corner: Hiroshima mon amour

How does an artist depict unimaginable atrocity? It’s an old question that’s come up again in objections to Christopher Nolan’s surprise blockbuster Oppenheimer, which dramatizes the invention and testing of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos but never ventures over to Japan to show us the hell it wrought. This is obviously an artistic choice on Nolan’s part – the word “compartmentalization” is uttered so many times during the movie you’d have to be being deliberately obtuse to miss the point – but it does provide a convenient off-ramp for people who don’t feel like engaging with what the film is doing and want to feel morally superior to those who admire it. Yet, would it not be even more morally queasy to use cutting-edge special effects in a giant-screen IMAX spectacle picture to we can watch tens of thousands of civilians burn to death while we’re chomping on our popcorn? 

Is there a way to employ such imagery responsibly? Is it even possible in a piece of entertainment? That’s one of the central questions haunting Alain Resnais’ 1959 Hiroshima mon amour, a thrillingly complicated exploration of historical trauma and shared memory in the guise of a fleeting romance. The film follows an unnamed actress from France (Emanuelle Riva) during the last two days of a movie shoot in Japan. A one night stand with a dashing local architect (Eiji Okada) turns into something more, with the two happily married, illicit lovers becoming intensely confessional in the ways one can only be with someone you’re sure you’re never going to see again. It’s Brief Encounter, but after the bomb.

A mere 14 years since atomic annihilation, Hiroshima has become a popular tourist locale. The city is bedecked with neon lights and trendy cafes, the horrors of the recent past safely sequestered in a tasteful museum. But the past is never far from the surface in an Alain Resnais film, with remembrances bubbling up to the present in a radically fluid, time-tripping editing style often imitated (Steven Soderbergh, Wong Kar Wai and Christopher Nolan were all obviously taking notes) but never surpassed. Hiroshima mon amour spans decades while remaining stubbornly in the present tense, the way our own memories ebb and flow according to what we’re feeling in the moment.

The film begins with naked entwined bodies covered in ash, like the fabled lovers of Pompeii. Resnais will return time and again to similarly tangled limbs — the sweaty figures of Riva and Okada between the sheets – paying particular attention to her fingernails on his back. The sumptuous, erotic imagery is juxtaposed with the horrors of Hiroshima in 1945. We see stark newsreel footage and sparing reenactments as the actress admits to crying at the museum. “You have seen nothing of Hiroshima,” the architect insists. “Nothing.” In his eyes, the museum is simply a simulacrum to jerk tears from tourists, no different from the cheesy-sounding movie she’s been shooting in town that the actress calls “an advertisement for peace.” Unless you were there on August 6, you couldn’t possibly understand what happened in Hiroshima. The architect would know, as he wasn’t there that day, either.

Having Riva play an actress in a well-meaning war movie is just one of the ways Margarite Duras’s screenplay for Hiroshima mon amour indicts and deconstructs itself as it goes along. The project was originally pitched to Resnais as a documentary short looking at the bomb through a similar prism to which he viewed the Holocaust in his 1956 Night and Fog. It was the director’s idea to make it his first dramatic feature, as was the decision to hire controversial French novelist Duras to write the screenplay, her first. It feels exhilaratingly free, like the work of artists trying something for the first time without being hidebound by preconceived notions of what a movie is supposed to be. It’s like that old line about Citizen Kane coming out the way it did because Orson Welles didn’t know what he wasn’t allowed to do. 

The title alone is a reckless provocation. As is the backstory about Riva’s childhood in the pointedly named French village of Nevers. (Duras loves her wordplay, repeating key phrases as if they were incantations – never forget, but try not to remember Nevers.) Some viewers have winced at what they perceive as a false equivalency between a doomed schoolgirl romance with a German soldier and the wholesale slaughter of thousands. And yet, I think there’s something to how visceral her story feels when compared to the movie’s distanced backdrop of mass death. What’s that Josef Stalin quote about how one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic? Hiroshima mon amour wrestles with it honestly, her feelings intensified by a new H-bomb reality in which mass death could be dropping from the skies at any moment. When the movie’s over, it may be true that we have seen nothing of Hiroshima, but there’s a chilling sense that we will someday soon.

“Hiroshima mon amour” is streaming on the Criterion Channel.

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