Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

Director: Alain Resnais
Writer: Marguerite Duras
DP: Michio Takahashi, Sacha Vierny
Editor: Jasmine Chasney. Henri Colpi, Anne Sarraute
Score: George Delerue, Giovanni Fusco
Producer: Samy Halfon, Anatole Dauman
Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada
Distribution: Pathé Films
Length: 1 hr. 30 min.

Hiroshima mon amour takes place after its own action.  In terms of the plot it's minimalistic, consisting of little more than conversations between an unnamed woman from France and an unnamed man from Japan.  Each of them has experienced disaster in their life, but the disasters that appear in their respective histories are of very different kinds.

The film opens with dialogue that seems surreal and immaterial paired with stark, concretely horrifying footage.  We hear the woman's voice saying she knows of the tragedy that occurred in Hiroshima as a result of the nuclear bomb, and we hear the man's voice contradicting her, telling her she knows nothing and remembers nothing.  It is uncertain, perhaps even unlikely, that they are actually saying these words to each other, but they set us up to understand the relationship between these characters nonetheless.  This dialogue is set over footage of a war museum in Hiroshima juxtaposed with depictions of the aftermath of the nuclear attack.  This sequence repeatedly cuts to shots of the woman and man together, though neither of their faces can be seen.

Resnais begins by trying to demonstrate the gravity of what happened in Hiroshima, but simultaneously asking us to consider how impossible it must be for someone viewing it in retrospect to really understand what it was like for the people who experienced it firsthand.  And yet, the woman from France will still attempt to understand.  She has come to Hiroshima to act in a film promoting peace, and engages directly with activists against nuclear arms.  She too experienced loss during the war, though not nearly on the same scale as the disaster in Hiroshima.  She lost her lover, a foreigner from Germany, and the people of her hometown cruelly punished her for consorting with a German.  We find her disaster is one of unfinished business, a loss that occurred at a time before it could have made sense to her.  She does not want to forget, and in coming to Hiroshima, she's come to a place that has experienced disaster with memories intact.  But as we already saw, one who didn't experience such a monumental tragedy firsthand can't hope to fully understand it.

The man from Japan is very different.  His disaster was larger and unmistakably final.  When the bomb was dropped, his family was in Hiroshima.  Unlike the woman, he wants to forget.  He constantly attempts to place her experiences in perspective, contradicting or otherwise conflicting with what she says.  When she starts to speak to him about her memories of her hometown, he tells her "I somehow know that then you were so young you couldn't yet belong to anyone."  He says he was drawn to her by the look of boredom on her face when he first saw her.  While she takes the film to places that showcase Hiroshima's recovery, his interactions with her lead us to a direct portrayal of her memories.

Resnais does not make a statement on which of their strategies for moving on after a crisis is superior.  Rather, he shows us that once a disaster happens, it exists and continues to exist.  At the end of the film, the man doesn't get to completely forget and the woman doesn't get full closure. The disaster is not forgotten, but nor is it seen as something that can be answered.  Resnais was the director of the 1955 documentary Night and Fog, after all, a film intended to preserve the atrocities of the Holocaust because we simply can't afford to forget them.  But even though they remain unnamed, they get new names, and the new names stem from the tragedies that befell them.

They aren't the only characters with lines in the film, but they may as well be.  At the time I write this, I am not staying in my home country, and I can say that Hiroshima mon amour very much captures the experience of being in a place with a different cultural identity from that of your home, and where not everyone speaks your native language.  In a way it's isolating, but you don't feel restricted so much as distant.  There's freedom with the distance, but it's possible to sacrifice some of that freedom and pursue intimacy.  I admire that it was able to capture this feeling so well, and I think it certainly helps carry across the way the two central characters react to each other as foreign presences.

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