Hiroshima, Mon Amour: The Criterion Collection
Though he was not one of them, Alain Resnais became a very timely hero for the French New Wave when he unveiled his first fiction film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Representing a sharp break from the obdurately classical cinema tyrannically dominating the medium to stultifying effect, Resnais was working the miracle those enfants terrible had been clamoring for throughout most of that first postwar decade from the bully pulpit of Cahiers du Cinema. Watching the film today, it is almost impossible to comprehend its immediate and galvanizing impact since the director's style has been parsed, parroted, and parodied ad nauseum (every art-film spoof ever perpetrated is sending up Resnais, whether the pranksters know it or not). Clearly, these nascent filmmakers and theorists were inspired Cahiers even convened a roundtable comprising some of its young titans like Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jacques Rivette to marvel at the film's achievement and discuss whether it was perhaps the most important motion picture ever made. But watershed pictures such as these often run the risk of turning into museum pieces, failing to speak to future generations as profoundly as they did to those present for that initial, thrilling moment of discovery. Hiroshima, Mon Amour is a memory play told primarily by its female protagonist, Elle (Emmanuelle Riva), a French actress who has come to the Japanese city to make a film about peace. Near the end of her stay on the island, she has what is intended to be a simple one-night stand with a married Japanese architect and politician, Lui (Eiji Okada). But, as they indulge in the obligatory morning-after conversation, their coupling becomes an intensely emotional roundelay of remorse. Elle is due to leave Hiroshima the following day and has every stated intention to do so, but as they wander this newly rebuilt monument to man's inhumanity, which has startlingly risen from the ashes of the atom bomb to become a tourist destination, Lui repeatedly badgers her to stay thus, dredging up the suppressed wartime tragedy that's led her to be so "dubious about other peoples morals." Elle's awful revelation unfolds in a riverside tea room where she recounts her fatally forbidden affair with a young German soldier that ended in his death and her being ostracized and banished to the cellar of her parents' house. Plying her with beer after beer as she struggles through her tale of woe, Lui acts as little more than priest to a confession. As Elle completes her unburdening to Lui, she is relieved and thankful to have had another person with whom to share her tragedy. But, then, a deeper chill sets in between them. Elle suddenly craves a distance as the two realize it will take another war, with new atrocities and attendant scarring, to bring them together again.
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Most of Hiroshima, Mon Amour's detractors obsess on the film's unremitting seriousness and weighty artistry that, as Pauline Kael said, makes you "feel as if you're in church and need to giggle." But Resnais at the top of his game (as he is here) is far too clever a director to let the whole endeavor spiral off into preachy silliness. Not really a political film, Resnais appears most concerned with serving Marguerite Duras' sensitive and literate script; making himself a stylistic surrogate for the writer's dramatized philosophical inquiry (Truffaut once said of the director, "There are any number of ways of constructing a screenplay, and many ways of filming it. It is evident that Resnais envisages all of them.") To this end, the opening 15-minute montage boasts some of the more indelible images ever captured on film (e.g. the dissolves between bodies covered in ashy nuclear fallout to lovers in a sweaty embrace) punctuated by Giovanni Fusco's plaintive score. But once that wonderfully lyrical sequence ends, the audience is left to spend the rest of the film in the company of two glorified symbols representing their respective countries. Riva is quite good as the haunted Elle, while Okada nobly pleads and listens, but there's absolutely no heat between the two, nor is there any resonance in Elle's unburdening. The fault for this lies with Resnais' preoccupation with expanding the visual vocabulary, which doesn't exactly make for compelling viewing some 40 years after the fact. Because his New Wave admirers so completely assimilated the film's visual language and cannibalized its bluntly non-linear structure (particularly with regard to the revolutionary jump-cutting to flashbacks) in establishing their own individual styles, revisiting the picture now is to pick over the leftovers of what must've once been an exceptional meal. All that's left are the raves and the writings of those who were nourished by it (lending ironic support to Godard's belief that the film should be discussed as literature.)
Criterion presents Hiroshima, Mon Amour in a typically brilliant, full-screen transfer (1.33:1) with fine monaural audio. Extras include an admiring commentary track from the British Film Institute's Peter Cowie, which is in many ways more edifying than the film itself since it offers the opportunity of listening to someone who experienced the picture before it was passé. There are two interviews with Resnais (15 min.) one filmed for Last Year at Marienbad in 1961 and another from 1980 in which, like any astute formalist, he refuses to offer definitive interpretations for any of his works. He does, however, discuss his humble aversion to being categorized as an auteur, wisely preferring to share credit with his collaborators. Also on the disc are two interviews with Riva (24 min.), spoken excerpts from Duras' script annotations that run over select scenes from the film, and an isolated music and sound-effects track (this may now be the ideal way to watch the movie.) But, fittingly, the most indispensable bonus proves to be the 32-page booklet that features an abridged reprint of the aforementioned 1959 Cahiers du Cinema roundtable, a dependably eloquent essay by Kent Jones, two "character portraits" by Duras, and a brief piece on Fusco. Keep-case.