Hiroshima mon amour

Director: Alain Resnais
Screenplay: Marguerite Duras
Stars: Emmanuelle Riva (Elle), Eiji Okada (Lui), Stella Dassas (Mother), Pierre Barbaud (Father), Bernard Fresson (German Lover)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1959
Country: France / Japan
Hiroshima mon amour Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Hiroshima mon amourIf one wanted to mark the moment that the French New Wave fully overtook international cinema, one wouldn’t have to look much further than the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. That week alone witnessed screenings of Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus (which took home the Palm d’Or), Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (which won Truffaut the Best Director award), and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, which screened out of competition. Of those three films, Resnais’s is clearly the most daring and idiosyncratic, which is only appropriate given the distance that Resnais tended to keep from the core members of the nouvelle vague—Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacque Rivette, and Eric Rohmer. Unlike them, he did not begin his career as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma, he never collaborated with any of them even as they dissected his work in their pages, and he was also notably older, having already forged a decade-long career as a documentary filmmaker and made at least one outright masterpiece, Night and Fog (1955).

Hiroshima mon amour marked Resnais’s first foray into fictional feature filmmaking, and it firmly established him as the filmmaker most responsible for changing the culture of French cinema. The film marked his first collaboration with a well-known French literary figure whose concerns meshed with his own, in this case Marguerite Duras. But, rather than adapting one of her previous works, he tasked her with writing an original screenplay, which gave him the opportunity to merge their artistic personalities while exploring many of his favorite themes: time, memory, suffering, shifting points of view, juxtaposition.

The story in Hiroshima mon amour, which is set almost entirely in the titular Japanese city, balances two illicit, doomed romances, one in the past and one in the present, although Resnais would not describe the temporal structure in that way. He refused to use the term “flashback,” even though the film employs devices that would be described as such by most people. However, for Resnais, a flashback is not a past event, but rather a present memory, which means that it is just as much a part of the present tense as the person holding that memory. Thus, when the film “flashes back” to a second storyline set in rural France during World War II, we are not seeing the true past, but rather a memory filtered through the protagonist’s subconscious, which is why Resnais hired two different cinematographers to shoot the two parts of the movie. He wanted them to look and feel different, thus giving aesthetic richness to the overlap between reality and memory.

The opening of the film could be seen as a 12-minute self-contained documentary about the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and the devastating impact it had, not just in the fiery moment of its immediate destructiveness, but in the physical damage caused to the survivors and the emotional and psychic wounds it left on the Japanese people. Resnais and editors Jasmine Chasney, Henri Colpi, and Anne Sarraute expertly intercut documentary footage of the ruins of Hiroshima and the hibakusha, the radiation-poisoned and horribly burned survivors; footage from preexisting Japanese films that had recreated the atrocity; and images of his two protagonists, depicted entirely in close-ups of their arms and bodies intertwined. The mixing of the sexual and the horrific is bold and potentially tasteless, but Resnais finds a poetic balance in the two, suggesting the power of human connection even amid the worst of human atrocity. The almost abstract way he films the lovers together makes them both literal and symbolic, and he draws out an intense eroticism from little more than fingers pressing into a back. It’s a textbook example of how a great filmmaker can derive so much from so little.

Soon we are introduced to the two main characters, neither of whom are given names: a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) who is in Hiroshima shooting a film, and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) she meets one night. They are in the midst of a one-night affair, but their physical and emotional intensity clearly outstrips that temporal limitation. Much of the film is simply them talking, which leads to her lengthy discussion of her experience in rural France during World War II, where she had an affair with a German soldier and was later shamed as a Nazi conspirator. The overlap of the two affairs—both with “enemies” of France—is intensified by the way she discusses them, at times blurring the German soldier and the Japanese architect into one dream figure. Resnais and Duras thus merge past and present, objectivity and subjectivity, and in the process create the aura of an enduring, eternal sense of love and passion that is knowable to us only in its various manifestations.

The film has a strong sense of fatalistic doom, which connects with the constant shadow of the Hiroshima bomb and the devastation it caused. Yet, Hiroshima mon amour is not fashionably vague, but rather deeply, powerfully specific in conveying how two people can be draw together regardless of nationality, race, or history. Resnais would gain even more fame two years later for Last Year at Marienbad (1961), an arthouse staple that is the first and last statement in ambiguity. Resnais’s fascination with the way things bleed into each other—memories, lovers, words, historical moments—makes Hiroshima mon amour a particularly compelling and fascinating film, one that has endured well beyond its importance in throwing open the gates to a new era in French cinema.

Hiroshima mon amour Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioFrench Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie
  • Interviews with director Alain Resnais from 1961 and 1980
  • Interviews with actor Emmanuelle Riva from 1959 and 2003
  • New interview with film scholar François Thomas
  • New interview with music scholar Tim Page
  • “Revoir ‘Hiroshima’ ...,” a 2013 program about the film’s restoration
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones and excerpts from a 1959 Cahiers du cinéma roundtable discussion about the film
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 14, 2015

    Criterion’s new transfer of Hiroshima mon amour looks excellent and is a strong improvement over their 2003 DVD. The transfer comes from the 2013 restoration, which was undertaken by Argos Films, the Technicolor Foundation, the Groupama Gan Foundation, and the Cineteca di Bologna and involved scanning the original camera negative and restoring it in 4K. The black-and-white image is just a bit soft, but still maintains an impressive level of detail and nuance in the textures. There is decidedly less damage apparent in the image than we saw on the 2003 DVD, and it boasts much better black levels and stronger contrast. The film’s monaural soundtrack, which is presented in a lossless Linear PCM mix, sounds good for its age. The musical score by art film mainstays Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco sounds very good, with clarity and hints of depth.
    The supplements include a number of holdovers from the 2003 DVD as well as a few new gems. From the DVD we get film historian Peter Cowie’s excellent audio commentary; two interviews with director Alain Resnais, one from 1961 and one from 1980; and two interviews with Emmanuelle Riva, one from 1959 and one from 2003. Added to that, we now have a new interview with film scholar François Thomas, author of L’atelier d’Alain Resnais, who discusses the film’s unique production and legacy; a new interview with music scholar Tim Page about the film’s unique score; and “Revoir ‘Hiroshima’ ...,” a fascinating program from 2013 about the film’s restoration. The insert booklet features the same essay by critic Kent Jones and excerpts from a 1959 Cahiers du cinéma roundtable discussion about the film. Unfortunately, we also lose a few supplements from the DVD, including excerpts from Maguerite Duras’ annotations to the screenplay and an isolated music and effects track.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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