Within a few years of release in 1959, the film just missed the overall top 10 in Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll. Its reputation now seems less central in film history, and compared with certain other famous films of the time cited more often as an influence by current directors. Are we now taking its innovative combination of fractured time, its fluid movement between memory, past and present, its questioning of truth and reality, its blurring of fiction and documentary, its international and historical scope, its mix of sensuality and intellect, its coverage of both individual and mass experience (Riva’s hair cut, like the Japanese women’s hair falling out…), natural beauty and urban lights for granted? Is it in any way less relevant now?
Resnais had already dealt with the holocaust in Night and Fog, and here it’s another monumental event from the time, the A Bomb. One aspect that interests me is the issue of wartime collaboration. We feel sympathy for Riva’s plight and anguish; she follows her heart and pays the price. If it was simply love v patriotism, i would go for love everytime- but here it’s the Nazis and even an innocent/naive romance would have a negative effect on those resisting Nazi evil. The film gives a strong sense that life and relationships can never be so meaningful, feelings so intense, for her again, even though she’s not simply going through the motions with Okada.
The film also raises questions of how close we can become to and genuinely know, another. The film is about both unity and separation- a Franco-Japnese co-production, using different cinematographers and crew in the 2 countries, showing 2 individuals in WW2 brought together then forever parted, 2 countries formerly enemies now allied, 2 individuals becoming intimate, yet Okada’s “No” forms a barrier. Can one person’s truth really be another’s given subjectivity and memory? How reliable is memory anyway? Is film a dispassionate presenter of truth? I was reminded in the early scenes’ body contours and textures of both Varda’s earlier L’Opéra Mouffe (Varda’s place in the early New Wave often neglected) and the Japanese classic Woman of the Dunes. Hiroshima mon Amour has even been compared to Casablanca!
In Pierrot le Fou we have the famous quote about film as “in a word, emotion”. To me, this is more powerful emotionally than anything Godard or Fellini have come up with. To some, it may seem pretentious, but it’s not merely an academic exercise in “look at me, aren’t i the clever intellectual?” style. And as well as its elegant camerawork in Japan, it captures the beauty of the Loire, a Queen among rivers, as well as any. Like Tarkovsky’s Mirror has often come to mind when walking in meadows or by woods, so i was thinking of it earlier this year when on the banks of the Loire, watching the little swirls and currents
I also like the film’s non-judgmental approach. No simplistic notions and arrogant certainties over Good and Evil, of the sort that cause more wars.
all that without mentioning duras, a [woman]??? neglect neglect!
Yes, tut tut. I was gonna come on to Duras, and how well the collaboration between writer and director works- and she was Oscar-nominated i think-, but i was rushing to get down what i could, as i had to let the dog out quickly and my internet often cuts out if left unused even for a short time..
How reliable is memory anyway? Is film a dispassionate presenter of truth?
Heh, not always reliable. Humans are notorious for not only creating false memories, but also believing in them wholeheartedly as if they were “truth”… that is, if even scientific theories concerning the fabric of reality often struggle to present fact and truth, then cinema as an expressive artform has buckley’s chance :P
Can one person’s truth really be another’s given subjectivity and memory?
It’s kind of difficult for me to gauge what exactly you’re talking about here, but I suppose that it depends upon what you mean by “truth” i.e. genuine subjective expressions which one genuinely believes to be “true” (which one would perhaps find in a cinematic expression, etc), or perhaps abstract systems of logic which are more “objectively” contained, etc. But even genuine expressions can easily be misguided, based upon false memories, beset by cognitive biases, etc. How can we know for sure? And then, systems of logic and mathematics also struggle to “prove” their own consistency within their own axioms, etc. Well, all that I can be sure of myself is that I’m a massive skeptic about pretty much everything – I don’t even outright trust my own senses, haha – but I’m not sure that I’m talking about what you’re talking about at this point lol.
As for this particular film, it’s been a few years since I saw it last, but at the time I thought it to be beautifully constructed and, as you say Kenji, a kind of meditation on how well we can really know one another… that opening scene in particular has stayed with me… but I think I may have the DVD laying around in a box somewhere in my house, so I might go watch it again.
Well, I need to watch this film again. If only Kenji could host an auditorium-skype-forum deal on this film…
Resnais did some interesting documentaries in the 50s, and Hiroshima fits nicely between Night and Fog and Last Year at Marienbad, which takes the reality-memory issue, and spatial exploration, a stage further. Although he’s done some decent films since Marienbad- Providence was interesting and i like Wild Grass from 2009- i think Hiroshima mon Amour is still Resnais’ peak. Maybe its reputation has suffered a bit from his work since the 60s not being so highly valued. Or maybe changing post-modern fashions in taste
International co-operation and unity: it’s ironic that Riva suffers for being unlike Nazis who value nationalism so highly and are full of hatred for other nations and races. It’s also ironic that Fascist countries should have come together when each was mainly concerned with their own national prowess. Japan suffered massively at Hiroshima, having carried out atrocities and imperialist/militarist ideology. Even while showing the past, the film is more concerned with international friendship, peace and future positives than addressing Japan’s WW2 faults- but then , Resnais had already shown the concentration camps and where Axis ideology led. Obviously, in 59 the A Bomb was much more fresh in people’s minds and there was more fear for the immediate future of the planet, with the Cuban Missile crisis on the horizon. Maybe that’s something else that makes the film seem less acutely relevant now; we’ve had decades of getting used to the threat of annihilation, even if it’s still present- falling from a multi-storey building doesn’t make the passing a couple of floors a sign of safety. While Japan has had another nuclear disaster this year, BBC commentators declared it a sign of the safety of nuclear power! .
The film shows how the past effects the present, in a way becomes part of it- whether the mass ongoing fall-out of the Atom bomb or the pain and flashbacks Riva experiences.
Anyway, i like its values.
Neglect, neglect of Duras! Does she deserve more credit? No doubt. Is this sexism, or auteurism favouring the director at the expense of writer? @ TwoDeadMagpies; what do you think she brings as a woman? Riva is more the main character than Okada. Or is that as much cos she’s French? Is there extra depth to the character of Riva, or how is it different, thanks to Duras’ gender?
There’s what a movie is “about” and how it’s all presented. I watched this movie a few years ago and was so unbelievably bored and annoyed by the presentation that I lost all interest in what it had to say.
I can understand aspects being off-putting but even setting aside what it has to say, I think it’s elegant and beautiful
The beauty of Resnais’ images meet the beauty of Duras’ words.
Great post, Kenji! Should we rally behind this one in the Longform List project?
The thought did cross my mind. Even though there are other less famous goodies i’d like to see having time in the sun (the top 20 gets most attention), like Gamperaliya, or needing saving from being cast into oblivion.
I only saw this movie once and through the majority of it felt like I was in a fugue state until the ending snapped me awake. I still don’t really know what to think or how to feel about the movie, but I love a lot of the things that it does and I am eager to see it again sometime. Resnais is a favorite of mine (only one truly awful film I’ve seen so far) and Night and Fog and Last Year at Marienbad are both favorites (not to mention Muriel which to me is like the sequel to Lacombe, Lucien in terms of foresight/aftersight), so I know in this case that a second viewing will help me see a lot more of what is going on.
I have seen far too few Resnais films, but this ranks as my favorite by a mile, and definitely deserves support.
I also wanted to respond to that idea of this movie as a idealist movie about coming together, I cannot say that I got that from my viewing, and would be interested to look into it when I watch again. Certainly there is a parable behind the woman and the man and their relationship, but underscoring that relationship is drama, I get a real sense of pain and humiliation, like in a way that they still love each other, but feel trapped/stuck with each other. A lot of the movie is built around caresses but those caresses are shot against a dark background in a way that mixes and matches a feeling of Eros and Thanatos, they could be lovers or they could just be dead. Then the movie shows what they’ve been through and it becomes pretty difficult for me to imagine that the idea is that they should just love one another to protect themselves from what has happened.
But I may be misunderstanding that argument.
Night and Fog shows that the memory of the Holocaust must be remade, again and again, in order to prevent a forgetfulness of it. I believe something similar is operating in Hiroshima mon amour, where the lovers are lovers not because they love each other but because it is in their relationship that they are capable of remembering the things that happened to them. Japan and the West must be lovers not because it will keep us from hurting each other, but because the way we hurt each other will keep us remembering unless we split.
What was the “one truly awful film,” Polaris?
I’ve been a huge fan of this for years. I’d go as far as to say that I prefer it to Resnais’ more acclaimed film – Last Year…
It seems to have been lovingly crafted. Shot in beautifully lit black and white, with fantastic writing and acting. I love films where the architecture and cityscapes almost seem like an extra character and this film is a great example of that nuance. I agree with DiB’s comment it’s not so much dream-like but is so ethereal at times as to appear to be a fugue.
I have been supporting this masterpiece – amongst others – throughout the Top 20 poll, it’s not a film you often see in that type of list, but not really obscure enough for the fringe element at MUBI. It’s been sitting pretty in the top quarter for most of the poll but last few rounds it seems to have attracted some detractors – it’s hardly the manure that one poor fellow has been stating.
A few votes in its favour would not go amiss.
That shot of the arms embracing finds its echo in Woman of the Dunes – same actor, too
In the late 80s i had the impression Hiroshima mon Amour was still a major landmark in the canon- it was #40 in John Kobal’s Top 100 Movies book, based on a poll of international critics, that helped get me hooked on world cinema, whereas Marienbad was #74, But in mubiland (and elsewhere) it doesn’t get as much attention as i’d expected.
Sorry, I worded that badly,
I meant, It was more frequently acclaimed. From my perspective, I see LYaM receiving more attention in modern film media than Hma
Yeah you may be right, which is one reason this deserves more attention
ah sorry kenji…what does duras bring? well…i hope it’s not merely the representative ‘feminine’ angle, if it is, then oh shit, women are mental, may as well hang myself with a crimson velvet cord right now…duras is intoxifying. but i get told off for giving writers credit over the director so i won’t try to guess where she ends and resnais begins….
polaris prettily nails it: Japan and the West must be lovers not because it will keep us from hurting each other, but because the way we hurt each other will keep us remembering unless we split.
that’s what i love…where the personal meets historical context, where reality meets fiction etcetc….
I really can’t say why it’s lost its status within the canon, but I don’t get the feeling it’s ignored either. I currently believe it’s at around 108 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They poll, whatever that’s worth. In any case it’s noweher near cracking the top 50 obviously. I love the film personally and probably prefer it to Marienbad, which I do also love.
I watched this last night for the first time in 2 years, and I really saw this in a whole new light. The last time I saw this (back in 2010) it was something like my 4th or 5th viewing and that time the film’s magic had started to wear thin for me for some reason…I’m not a fan of melodrama and this film is jampacked with it.
However, this time I saw the film completely different- I hadn’t really noticed it on all my previous viewings, but this wasn’t just a film about memory and lost love and the impossibility of understanding each other, it was a film about madness and selfishness. The woman- played by Emmanuelle Riva- is clearly out of her mind in a way, not just in the way she uses men to relive the memory of her first, tragic love- but the way she holds onto him as if he was her entire world after 14 years. She is not only haunted by her lover’s death and her inability to move past it- she is haunted by Nevers, by being 18. She’s essentially an 18 year old girl trapped in the shell of a 30 year old woman, and knows she’ll never move past it.
And the man- whom I originally saw as wounded and vulnerable- is a bit vampiric. A man that wants, just as much as the woman, for people to become ideas. He wants the woman to represent something- the mystery of the rest of the world, a consolation for the events of Hiroshima. Almost like he wants to take hold of this tourist that has wandered into Hiroshima and suck the energy from her tragic memories.
Of course, I’m just reading into it. But the film opens up once you realize that the melodrama in the film is self-inflicted. These two people WANT to live in their tragedies- in their memories to the point where it’s almost laughable (I still cringe a bit at the ending, I must say, but…). This is no more apparent than in the last part of the film, when the two characters are silently staring at each other while another Japanese man hits on the woman. His pickup lines and approach are so calm and normal (“Do you like Japan?” etc.) while these two are caught up in the complete madness of melodramatic memory.
In any case, the first 20 minutes will always be untouchably perfect for me. The rhythm of the editing and tracking shots, the framing, the music, the voice over. The first 20 minutes alone make this film a masterpiece. But the rest of the film, both in content and technique, are a lot more complex than I thought, even after 4 viewings. It’s a film that’s best revisited every few years.
^Eros and Thanatos.
Part of the ‘relationship’ between Paris and Japan being the massive death that occurs between them. A ‘coupling’ joined by destruction.
“What was the “one truly awful film,” Polaris?”
Oh, I think Resnais’ Melo was truly awful. Everything else I’ve seen by him has been amazing or I at least enjoyed.
I hated Last Year at Marienbad. I’ve watched it 3 times and I just hate it.
Muriel is great though and The War Is Over is pretty underrated.