Ranking: #39/111

Director: Alain Resnais

Genre: Social Drama/Romance/Arthouse

Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of the most abstract, poetic and innovative films ever made. As US filmmaker and theoretician, Lee Bobker said: “The film combines some of the most complicated elements ever presented on screen…[It] is designed like a fantastic jigsaw puzzle.” (Bobker, L.R., 1979.  Elements of Film, p.142)

Based on a searching, lyrical script by French novelist, playwright, screenwriter and essayist, Marguerite Duras, Resnais has woven together into a unique hybrid format, poetic images, voice-over narration, documentary excerpts, narrative flashbacks, dream-like sequences and the storyline.

Originally hired to make a documentary film about the atom bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War 2, fourteen years after the war ended, the project evolved into a more personal and lyrical approach to the subject matter.

The film has one of the most evocative and enigmatic openings in film history. The main character, Elle, and her Japanese lover, Eiji, are making love, while radiation is falling over them. Then this radiation effect is dissolved and their naked skin is shown as normal, but spotted with beads of perspiration. The message is that the effects of atomic radiation are pervasive, infiltrating every aspect of life in Hiroshima. A strange dialogue is narrated by a voice over where the male voice says: “You saw nothing at Hiroshima”, but the female voice refutes this statement with her own: “I saw everything at Hiroshima”. There is an interplay between the intimacy of the love-making and the thoughts of the characters in this dialogue, which show a mental barrier between them, indicating they do not understand each other.

Then we see a documentary image of the shell of the ruined Museum of Hiroshima building still standing. Again, an interplay is set up between seeing history through personal memory, and its perceptions, as oppose to seeing history through facts and stark photographs of its horrors. This harsh counterpoint between war and love-making in the opening sequence is shocking. The violent juxtaposition has the effect of magnifying the horror of war. Resnais and Duras set up lots of alienation effects like this in the film.

Elle is a French actress making a film in Hiroshima, in which she plays a nurse. It is her last day in the country. Although she is having an affair with Eiji, their relationship and their lives are going nowhere: “Staying is even more impossible than leaving.” Some dream-like sequences in the city follow which illustrate she is totally undecided about whether to stay or to go. Her own indecision mirrors the stasis of the whole city of Hiroshima, described as “the cradle of anxiety.”

Through flashbacks, we learn that during the war Elle had an affair with a German solider and was brutally ostracised and punished by her family and by the locals. She was only 18 years old at the time. The disgrace that follows leads to disaster for the family, as her father’s pharmacy is closed down due to loss of business. Resnais uses long shots for the flashbacks during the war, contrasting with close-ups for the scenes in present time, a stunning innovation which dispels the idea that the past is less real than the present. One of the main philosophical themes of the movie is that the past and present are inextricably intertwined, with the past determining much of the present, leaving its scars behind. James Monaco describes this as follows: “Resnais explored the function of time and memory with stunning effect.”(Monaco, J, 2009 (1977). How to Read a Film – Movies, Media and Beyond,p. 353) Applying this principle to a movie about the effects of war and atomic weapons proved incredibly effective.

Whereas Resnais’s other highly abstract, arthouse film, Last Year in Marienbad (1961) struck me, at times, as artificial and even pretentious, an “art for art’s sake” work, Hiroshima Mon Amour, sustains its artistic and even narrative cohesion, despite the enormous editing challenges he faced in bringing together such a disparate collection of material. What you have is a love story, an anti-war polemic, a personal commentary on the use of atom bombs in war, and an experiment in poetic cinema rolled into one.