Nov 10, 2007

Hiroshima mon amour

by Ulf Zander, PhD in History, Lund University

Alain Resnais was for a long time long known as a director of documentaries and a skilful editor, a reputation that grew even stronger after his path breaking film of the Holocaust and its reminiscent in the 1950’s, Night and Fog (1955). Early on, the producers of Hiroshima mon amour wanted Resnais to make a documentary with a running time no longer than an hour about the atomic bomb. Since it from the beginning was a French-Japanese co-production, the filmmakers “had to spend some yen in Japan,” to quote Resnais from one of the two interviews that is included in the ambitious Criterion Collection DVD release of Hiroshima mon amour. However, a number of problems soon arised. Chris Marker, who had been director of photography in Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard, 1955), did not feel comfortable with the project and left it after only ten days. As the work progressed, Resnais was not pleased with the allegorical screenplay that he and Vitol Zargesky, a friend of Marker who had lived in Japan for a long time, had written. Finally, he told the producers that they would be better off buying one of a number of excellent Japanese documentaries on the effects of the atomic bombs that were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At that time, the idea came up to include the French writer Françoise Sagan in the writing process, a suggestion that appealed to Resnais. Sagan, on the other hand, thought that the magnitude of the subject was too great to write about. Meanwhile, Resnais planned to film Marguerite Duras’ novel Moderato Cantabile (1958), but realised that he would run into serious trouble to finance such a project. Via a contact at the film company, Resnais and Duras came to work together with Hiroshima mon amour. During a meeting, they came to the conclusion that, at the same time as they were drinking tea, a number of air planes circled the earth, ready to drop the atomic bombs on a given command. The new staring point was to suggest, in elaborated pictures and images and with a poetic dialogue, the horrors rather than show them explicitly. The latter would rather have been the documentary approach. Their “tool” was a classic love story. Its characters and their development, Resnais and Duras suggested, could be seen as a metaphor to the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the rest of the world.

Hiroshima mon amour deals with the need to both remember and forget traumatic events. In the beginning of the film, the original pursuit to make documentary is obvious, as the female French actress walks through the hospital, the museum and other places in Hiroshima connected to the atomic bomb. It is, however, not an ordinary documentary, since the Japanese people tend to turn their heads away, signalling that she is nothing but a tourist. The same message comes from her Japanese lover, an architect, who constantly says “[y]ou saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing”. Her answer is “I saw everything. Everything”. She motivates her argumentation with a bitter memory from her hometown Nevers during the Second World War. Her lover, a German soldier, is killed. Thereafter she is humiliated in public as a punishment for her connection with an enemy soldier.

Thus, she has a traumatic experience, which, in her own eyes, enables her to understand the collective tragedy in Hiroshima. The film suggests that this is both a correct and a false conclusion. On one hand, it is because Elle is able for the first to talk about her German boyfriend with her Japanese man that she realises the similarity between her two true loves. While she is dealing with the painful memory and, during the cause of one single day, altering parts and reunites with the Japanese architect, she realises that her Japanese love affair is as impossible as the first one was. One the other hand, and through the course of the turbulent love affair, she comes to the insight that her experience from Nevers does not in itself enable her to grasp what has happened in Hiroshima. She has indeed not seen anything in that town, or, to put in differently, one trauma can not be compared with another.

In the essay “Time Indefinite”, which accompany the DVD, film critic Kent Jones writes that “Hiroshima mon amour’s status as a milestone in film history is both a blessing and a curse. It can be hard for new audiences to find their way to the actual movie, buried as it is beneath its own daunting reputation, monumental subject matter, and high cultural pedigree”. His own analysis, as well as the to English translated round-table discussion with Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Doniel-Valcroze, Pierre Kast, and Jacques Rivette, from Cahiers du Cinéma, July 1959, is of great interest. Besides these texts, the edition from Criterion Collection includes a number of features which help the viewer to see through the many hinders that Jones points out. It has an audio commentary from 2002 by Peter Cowie, excerpts from Duras’ screenplay annotations that are narrated over clips from the film, character portraits signed by Duras and an essay on composer Giovanni Fusco by Russell Lack. Among the rich extra material are also two filmed interviews with Emmanuelle Riva, one from 2003 and one from the Cannes festival 1959. Especially the latter is still refreshing to see, especially because Riva without any difficulties wander between her profession as a theatre- and filmactress and the role that she plays in the film. Of great value are also the interviews with Alain Resnais from 1961 and 1980, respectively. The director has the ability to make clear his views on film making and the role as the director as auteur – which he dissociate from – in general and Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour in particular. Interestingly, he shows this abilities also when the questions from the interviewers are either pompous or everything but distinct.

It is not only the lion’s share of the commentaries that is worth mentioning. The new high-definition digital transfer and the likewise restored soundtrack make the film more beautiful than ever. Altogether, this edition of Hiroshima mon amour correspond perfectly well to the high standard that has become Criterion Collection’s trademark.

Hiroshima mon amour
France/Japan 1959

Directed by Alain Resnais Screenplay and dialogue Marguerite Duras Cinematography Sacha Vierny, Michio Takahashi Edited by Henri Colpi, Jasmine Chasey Music Georges Delerue, Giovanni Fusco With Emmanuelle Riva Elle Eiji Okada Lui Stella Dassas Elle’s mother Pierre Barbaud Elle’s father Bernard Fresson Elle’s German loverProduced by Anatone Dauman, Samy Halfon, Sacha Kamenka, Takeo Shirakawa Production Companies Argos Films, Como, Daiei Studios, Pathé Entertainment Runtime 90 minutes.
DVD, USA 2003: Distributed by The Criterion Collection (region 1) Aspect Ratio Academy 1,33:1 Sound Mix Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 Extras Audio commentary by Peter Cowie. 1961 interview with Alain Resnais. 1980 audio interview with Alain Resnais. 1959 interview with Emmanuelle Riva by Francois Chalais at the Cannes film festival. 2003 interview with Emmanuelle Riva. Excerpts from Marguerite Duras annoted screenplay. Isolated music and effects track. Printed essay by Kent Jones. Printed essay on composer Giovanni Fusco by Russell Lack. New subtitles.


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