“In a few years, when I have forgotten you… I’ll remember you as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness. I’ll think of this story as the horror of forgetting.”
Beginning with a close-up of the two protagonists of the film (Eiji Okada and Emmanuelle Riva), it is curious to note that they are covered in what appears to be ash. The image dissolves into a more natural shot of bodies covered in sweat. This symbolic “transformation” is a recurring theme in the film about how even intense and meaningful memories fade into approximations in time. Arguably Resnais’ best, this 1959 film was a pioneering work of cinema with endless variations of intelligent montage and intensely rhythmic editing. The existentialism of the film is undeniable (and Resnais was certainly no stranger to this concept – see Providence) not only in the contents of the writing but in the very craft of the film. They are in Hiroshima at the New Hiroshima Hotel. They met the night before and she is leaving for Paris tomorrow.
“You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing,” he says to her over and over in a monotone voice and for the next ten minutes she explains why he’s wrong. Can one ever truly relate to another culture even when one is fluent in its history and customs? It is an existential film in the truest sense: it reveals little but asks insightful questions having only subjective answers. He is Japanese of course and she is French. She asks him if he was in Hiroshima during the war, he says of course not. “What did Hiroshima mean to you in France?” he asks her. “The end of the war…and the beginning of an unknown fear for us as well…and then indifference…and fear of indifference as well.” He’s an architect but also dabbles in politics and speaks fluent French. He was a soldier in the war and his family lived in Hiroshima. “The whole world rejoiced, and you rejoiced with it. Was it a beautiful summer day in Paris?” he asks at mirror’s reflection.
She is now in Hiroshima acting in a film (“a film about peace”). “How could I know this city was tailor-made for love? How could I know you fit my body like a glove? I like you. How unlikely,” she tells him. “You were bored in a way that makes a man want to know a woman,” he tells her of their first meeting. “When you speak, I wonder whether you lie or tell the truth,” he says to her. “I lie…and I tell the truth, but I have no reason to lie to you.” The film is full of such cadenced dialogue that is poetic and, at times, surreal. “I have time. Please, devour me. Deform me to the point of ugliness. Why not you?” she implores him. He is the first Japanese man she has ever known.
Precise and intelligent, Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of the most well-developed films of the ‘50s. The writing is impeccable (“Madness is like intelligence. You can’t explain it…it overcomes you, consumes you, and then you understand. But when it’s gone, you no longer understand it at all.”) and Okada and Riva are perfectly casted as “Hiroshima” and “Nevers.” Hiroshima’s inference that the death of Nevers’ husband during the war was the beginning of her adult life is strangely optimistic and moving. There are many moments like this (such as the breathtaking tea room scene two-thirds into the film) where great sorrow somehow becomes great happiness (yet another theme is how one copes with tragedy, not to mention, how others rejoice at tragedy when it’s disguised as patriotism). It is an emotional film that doesn’t dwell in the confines of pure despair but merely passes through it for a time; a simple reflection upon things we cannot control. “I was so young once!”