‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center, as part of their “Recently Restored” series, on Friday, July 24th at 6:00 pm, Monday, July 27th at 6:00 pm and Wednesday the 29th at 8:15 pm.
Alain Resnais’ gorgeous and timeless Hiroshima Mon Amour (France, 1959) is one of the landmarks of world cinema – and it was Resnais’ feature film debut. Of course, he had spent the previous 20 years doing short films and documentaries, one of the most notable being Night And Fog (Nuit Et Brouillard). The 1955 film shuffled an almost pastoral visual tour of the abandoned Auschwitz with previously unseen documentary footage of the camp in full deployment, and during its liberation, 10 years earlier. Only 32 minutes long, it presents things we might be inclined to avoid remembering while demonstrating why we mustn’t. Rather than strictly explaining what happened and why, the film’s narrative recalls things more as reminiscence, as memories already being irrevocably diluted. The screenwriter is the novelist Jean Cayrol, who himself was interred in the camps.
Resnais originally set out to do something similar with Hiroshima Mon Amour, but more expansively. The French novelist Marguerite Duras wrote Resnais’ screenplay, and successfully manufactured a 36-hour affair between strangers that not only expressed enormous amounts of swooning romantic fatalism, but also commented on our human propensities to process, or repress, pain and tragedy through the filter of memory. The first portion of the film is, indeed, a documentary on Hiroshima, filmed years after the atomic bomb blast – we tour the commemorative museum, see footage of the initial aftermath of the blast, and witness how the Japanese inhabitants themselves are still living with the results. But the voiceover, and some strikingly intimate initial images, are provided by the couple having the affair; the French woman (the brilliant Emmanuelle Riva) asserts what she’s learned, and describes the local sights she’s seen, during her short visit, while the Japanese man (Eiji Okada) denies that she knows anything of Hiroshima. He’s an architect whose family lived through the blast – she’s an actress who has come to Hiroshima as part of the cast of an anti-war film. They are, however, immersed in love and lust with each other at the moment, despite knowing that they must leave each other, probably forever, in 36 hours.
At the onset of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut made The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959), and dissolved the line between objectively- presented narrative and the filmmaker’s subjective personal concerns. Jean-Luc Godard made Breathless (À bout de soufflé, 1960), and dissolved the line between real people and actors, real interaction and contrived narrative, and how the plastic qualities of film can affect all of that. Like the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, Godard always reminds you of the pretense, he always reminds you you’re watching a film, while convincing you that what’s on screen can be just as real as any other lived experience. Alain Resnais, in this film and his subsequent works, had more in common with the new wave of French writers and novelists of the time – the Nouveau Roman. Along with Resnais’ collaborators like Cayrol, Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet (the writer of his next feature, Last Year At Marienbad, 1961), French writers like Raymond Queneau, George Perec and Robert Pinget were deconstructing literature into its component concepts – Queneau wrote interchangeable cut-and-paste poems (A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), and Exercices De Style, which tells the same mundane story in 99 different styles, while Perec wrote a 300-page mystery novel (La Disparition / A Void) that never used the letter ‘e.’ (Neither in French nor the English translation!)
Resnais was interested in the same kind of narrative experiments as films; to tell stories of evocative people with unique personal histories, but to dissolve the boundaries between present and past, real-time and flashback, the lived present moment and memory, emotion and practicality, normal conversation and poetic exchange. The actress relates a tragic story of her love for a German soldier during the French occupation, and, as she relates the tale, the Japanese architect becomes a kind of transferee, a surrogate for her unresolved feelings towards her lost love. He, in turn, married with a family, begs her to remain in Hiroshima, simultaneously knowing, and denying, that it can never happen.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is not only superb as engaging storytelling and incisive character study, but also ranks as one of the most beautifully shot films of the French New Wave; French veteran Sacha Vierny and Michio Takahashi are co-credited as cinematographers. Also quite wonderful is the musical score by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco, an aggressively angular small-group jazz soundtrack that isn’t afraid to pop into circus music or mournful lament as the moment calls for. And don’t underestimate the musicality of Duras’ text, either, superbly surveyed by Riva and Okada (who, while clearly understanding what he was saying, performed the French dialogue purely phonetically. You’d never know it…)
These screenings are part of the Siskel Film Center’s “Recently Restored” series – it’ll be shown in pristine 4K DCP digital projection. Any chance to see this film in a real theater is a treat. This newly-restored version is a drop-what-you’re-doing must-see, trust me.