Hiroshima, mon amour

France (1959) Dir. Alain Resnais

In Post War Japan, Elle, a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva), making a film about the bombing of Hiroshima, begins an affair with a Japanese architect Lui (Eiji Okada). As Elle prepares to leave Japan she shares her memories of her first love back home in France.

A highly regarded entry in the French New Wave cinema, this was the feature film directorial debut of documentary maker Alain Resnais, who was originally commissioned to make a documentary of the Atomic Bomb. Deciding that this was too close his influential documentary on Nazi concentration camps Night And Fog, Resnais joked that such a film could made only if famed writer and director Marguerite Duras wrote the screenplay. Well, Duras was brought in and accepted the challenge and the rest as they say…

The film begins with a montage of the atrocities of the effects and fall out of the Hiroshima bombings, from body scars and burns, to blindness to hair falling out, loss of or deformities incurred on limbs, along with the structural damage to the area. This are shown interspersed with extreme close up shots of our two lovers in a naked embrace, their voices in deep discussion providing the narration to the images.

These powerful images of the surviving victims, which hark back to Resnais’s documentary making days, are hard to watch and the usage of these being intertwined with the sights of a passionate clinch is one of the more unique starts for a love story.

Elle is playing a nurse in a film about the bombing and believes all that she sees replicated for the film is real while Lui assures her differently. Prior to returning to France, Elle recalls her first love from when her town of Nevers was under Nazi occupation during the World War Two, who just happened to be a Nazi solider. Ex-communicated and punished by the other townsfolk, Elle likens the torture and hardship she suffered to the suffering at Hiroshima.

That sounds like an incredibly bold and shameless proclamation, an almost offensive comparison for anyone to make but it is a juxtaposition to show the distant sufferings during the same war. The mentality of the townsfolk and what they put Elle through – shaving her head, locking her in a cellar, deprived of food, etc. – made Elle sympathise with the suffering of the people and empathise with them rather than making an idle plea of sympathy for herself.

The irony however is that while the people of Hiroshima are trying to forget what happened to them, Elle is clinging to that painful memory and Lui is trying to encourage her to forget, occasionally having to be harsh and heartless to break this spell from the past that is holding Elle back. It is worth mentioning that both Elle and Lui are married. Are they unhappy in their marriages? They must be if they have to seek something with another person but there is no suggestion of any marital dissatisfaction rather that the pair finds some kind of unique solace with each other.

While this is an unusual and philosophical love story it is a zeitgeist slice of French cinema and thus it is very verbose; in fact it is pretty much 90% dialogue. But it is never dull. Emmanuelle Riva was immensely captivating with her sublime and powerful performance in last year’s Amour and it is that same ability to control the audience’s attention she displays here some fifty years earlier. The acting is of the time, a little hammy with moments of over the top physical reactions and gestures, but on the whole Riva makes the experience and the words and feelings of Elle believable.

Eiji Okada speaks French to Elle throughout the film, as she can’t speak of Japanese, and as a result comes across as more of a French lead than a Japanese one. He certainly doesn’t exude or exemplify any of the aspects of Japanese culture or protocols which is unusual for a film which was half filmed in Japan with Japanese crew as per a pre-film agreement, while Elle’s flashback sequences were filmed in France, but for many, this won’t be a noticeable.

For film buffs this will be a unique view on a horrific period of history and it has that arthouse quality to appeal to the more discerning cineastes. But what about mainstream movie fans? To be honest it might be a bit oblique for them. Usually foreign language films, especially black and white ones, are a no go zone and a bulk of the New Wave catalogue exemplifies all of the complaints and misconceptions about world cinema. It’s not a pretentious film per se but its verbosity will make people believe it is.

It’s not as straightforward as some films with its non-linear narrative but not impossible to follow. It runs at a fairly stable pace and doesn’t have any kind of dynamic explosion yet is never boring and is superbly acted. It is also superbly shot and brings out the best of both post war Japan and France as well as revealing the illuminating presence of a young Emmanuelle Riva to many fans who may know her from the aforementioned Amour.

Hiroshima, mon amour is a film that has earned as reputation over the years among the serious film buffs for it almost lyrical prose like dialogue and its clever juxtaposition of separate suffering. It is certainly a film that needs to be seen that highlights the unique perspective the French New Wave brought to the world of cinema.