There was always more than one side to the cinematic golden age now known as the French New Wave.
The side normally associated with this particular cultural moment is associated with directors like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol. These filmmakers started out as fans and moved onto criticism before stepping behind the camera and producing films that reflected the directors’ life-long love affair with the cinematic form. However, while these films may have struck a chord, changed the world, and made a lot of money, they never exhausted the energies of that particular cultural moment… there was always another side.
One step removed from the Parisian film clubs and the magazines they inspired was an older group of filmmakers. Less upstart film fans than Left Bank intellectuals with an interest in cinema, directors like Alain Renais, Chris Marker, and Agnés Varda were inspired as much by their love of literature and the plastic arts as they were by the cinematic greats. More experimental and less commercially successful as a result, the Left Bank directors were not content with achieving fluency in the language of cinema… they wanted to change the language of film forever.
Alain Renais began his cinematic career with dreams of one-day becoming an actor. Inspired by surrealist literature as well as teenaged visits to Parisian theatres, Renais left home in order to join a theatre company. Encouraged by his new employers, Renais enrolled first in an acting school and then in film school where his studies in editing were supposed to keep him close to the metal of performance until military service intervened. After a year spent with the French army of occupation, Renais returned to civilian life with a hunger to direct. Typically heterodox, these early films dealt with other people’s artistic processes until collaborating with La Jetee’s Chris Marker awoke what world turn out to be a career-defining interest in the creation of memory.
Renais’ career really began to take off in 1955 when he decided to make a short documentary about France’s collective memories of World War II. At the time, French political elites had heavily invested in the idea that France had collectively resisted the Nazis and that every citizen had been citizen resistance fighter. Painstakingly researched and brilliantly formed, Renais’ Night and Fog drove a coach and horses through this comforting myth and forced all of France to confront its active participation not only in the German war machine, but also the Holocaust. To this day, few cinematic moments have wielded as much power and influence as Renais’ image of a French policeman looking out over what is manifestly a concentration camp. Some further short documentaries followed but Renais was a man riding the crest of a cultural wave and a return to narrative film was as inevitable as it was welcome.
Despite being nearly sixty years old, Alain Renais’ debut feature Hiroshima Mon Amour remains one of the most singular and powerful works ever committed to film.
Hiroshima Mon Amour begins on a documentary footing as quiet, contemplative, and beautiful shots of a Japanese museum are juxtaposed with ugly, chaotic, and, disturbing footage of the American deployment of nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. Tic – An elegant modernist staircase descending into a well-lit exhibition hall… Toc – A Japanese doctor examining a woman whose eyes were burned to cinders by the power of the post-detonation flash. Tic – Tourists walking reverently around an exhibition… Toc – Half-starved Japanese children screaming in agony as terrified nurses treat their radiation burns. The images are deliberately shocking and they serve to position the film in the same thematic trajectory as Night and Fog… this is a film about our need to forget the horrible things that so readily define our lives.
This opening journey around the museum’s past and present is accompanied by a beautifully deadpan and yet powerfully poetic voice-over. An unnamed French woman talks about having visited the museum and seen all of the terrible things it contains while a Japanese man reminds her that she saw nothing in Hiroshima. At first, the woman dismisses the man’s challenge and repeatedly asserts the fact that she had indeed visited the museum but eventually the penny drops… the problem is not that she didn’t visit Hiroshima, it’s that what she saw in a museum is as nothing when compared to the memories burned into the bodies and brains of the local population: She may have seen melted artefacts and carefully curated ruins, but this doesn’t mean that she understands what happened in Hiroshima. The rest of the film is about taking this dynamic and turning it on its head in order to present the man with a situation that he simply cannot understand despite being in complete command of the facts.
Moving from documentary to conventional narrative, the film introduces us to the owners of the two voices: She (Emmanuelle Riva) is a French actress who has spent several weeks making a film in Hiroshima; He (Eiji Okada) is a local architect. Both are married but delighted to have made a genuine human connection over the course of what should have been a meaningless one-night stand. Obviously in love, the couple have breakfast and part only to wind up drifting back towards each other.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is not a conventional film. Aside from the documentary-style prelude and the primacy of theme over both character and plot, the film is written in a language that is closer to poetry than to conventional spoken dialogue. The singular nature of the film’s dialogue and voice-overs is due to the fact that Renais decided to hire Marguerite Duras as a screen-writer. Duras was unarguably one of the giants of post-War French literature; Born in Vietnam when it was still a French colony, Duras moved to France and spent the war working in the Vichy government’s censorship office whilst living a second life as a resistance fighter and revolutionary socialist. Though her early works were widely viewed as being quite conventional literary fare, her work soon became as experimental as her politics. By the time Duras agreed to write for Renais, her fiction had become austere, desolate and prone to obsessing over unimportant details, described in heart-stoppingly gorgeous prose. Hiroshima Mon Amour echoes these methods not only in its use of sonorously austere voice-overs but also in the way that it lavishes attention of what the couple cannot say.
He turns up on the film set and She is delighted to see him. The couple leave together and admit that there is more to their feelings than could ever be exhausted by a one-night stand. Drunk on the passion of their love, the couple wander the streets in an effort to avoid asking the obvious and difficult question as to what will happen next. He is completely besotted and begs her to stay with him in Hiroshima but she is unconvinced; neither a week, nor a month would be enough so why not leave it at a day? He urges her to leave her husband and stay with him but something is preventing her from doing so and it isn’t her relationship with her husband.
Through a series of elliptical flashbacks and voice-overs, She explains that He reminds her of her first love; a German soldier who was shot and killed on the day that the German army began its retreat. The kids had been hopelessly in love and were planning to spend the rest of their lives together and so She was left not only broken by loss but also on the wrong side of a town desperate to obliterate any evidence of collaboration. Like many of the women who took German lovers during World War II, She had her head shaved and her parents coped with the shame by locking Her in a basement where She was consumed by her grief and madness.
Were someone to make Hiroshima Mon Amour today, people would say that it was a film about trauma; the trauma inflicted upon the Japanese people by the American use of nuclear weapons and the trauma of being used as a scapegoat for the years your home town lived happily under German rule. Rather than differentiating between the wartime experiences of winners and losers, soldiers and civilians, Renais links the experiences of a Japanese soldier to the experiences of a French teenager and explores the effects of trauma upon memory and, by extension, the self. Though Renais would likely not have thought of his film in terms of modern ideas about psychological trauma, he intuitively understands the ways in which trauma can distance you from people who do not share your experiences. He also understands how traumatic events can demand a form of active and self-protective forgetfulness whereby the traumatised create new stories to tell about themselves. For example, the architect is only able to function because he chooses not to talk about the destruction of his home and family. When his lover tries to start a conversation about Hiroshima, his only response is to shut her down… “You saw nothing of Hiroshima”. Conversely, the actress is only able to function because she chooses not to fall in love so deeply as to be transported back to that day when she was shaved and thrown into a basement. She recognises the need to confront these feelings and move on with her life and yet she cannot… “You destroy me. You’re so good for me”.
The film does not so much end as gradually peter out. She refuses to stay in Hiroshima, He refuses to stop trying to convince her, and so the pair wind up following each other round deserted streets and in and out of bars. Where most dramas would end with one of the pair coming to their senses and overcoming their reluctance, Hiroshima Mon Amour revels in the emotional blockage it has uncovered: She cannot allow herself to fall in love, He cannot understand why she refuses to have a discussion… the couple are in love and in complete command of the facts about each other’s lives and yet there is nothing that can be said or done. They are fated to become little more than memories, stories about the one that got away. Soon their names will fade and they will be defined purely by the names of their home towns: He is Hiroshima, She is Nevers and nothing will ever change that.
This edition of Hiroshima Mon Amour has benefited greatly from the BFI’s 4k restoration. Existing DVD copies of the film always tended to be rather dark whereas the film is actually all about the brilliant sunlight at the spot where the bomb fell and the star-like lights that guide them round the city after dark. Less well-equipped with extras than one might hope for a film of this stature, the Blu-ray nonetheless comes with a charming interview with Emmanuelle Riva and a featurette on the restoration process.