Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.
When French documentarian Alain Resnais was commissioned to produce a short film about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, it initially seemed to him an impossible and daunting task. How does one convey onscreen the sheer magnitude of the horrific atomic attack and its devastating effects; how to reproduce on celluloid the ongoing trauma of that fateful August morning as experienced by the Japanese people? Resnais ultimately decided to focus his film on the “impossibility” of talking about, or fully knowing, the tragedy of Hiroshima. Eschewing the documentary form he was familiar with, the director instead embarked on his first narrative film, Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), enlisting the help of the celebrated French writer Marguerite Duras to write the film’s scenario and dialogue.
Resnais still retained documentary-style images of the ruins of Hiroshima and the city’s survivors, but the suffering of the city is filtered through the eyes, memories, and words of the film’s two protagonists, “He” and “She” (portrayed by Eiji Okada and Emmanuelle Riva respectively), a Japanese architect and a French actress who engage in an extramarital one-night stand. In framing the horrors of Hiroshima via their affair, Resnais brings us closer to the tragedy of war, and the tenderness and intimacy that transpires between these two relative strangers as they try for love amongst the physical and psychological ruins of not only Hiroshima, but their own wartime pasts, further humanizes the film’s heart-wrenching imagery. The transience of memory—the fear of forgetting the past—is a central theme within the film’s story, and it presents itself too within the film’s score.
Hiroshima, mon amour’s stark score was primarily composed by Giovanni Fusco, an Italian modernist composer who had come to Resnais’s attention through his work with director Michelangelo Antonioni.1 Fusco’s compositions for Hiroshima, mon amour are minimalist, written for a small chamber ensemble comprised of piano, piccolo, flute, clarinet, horn, viola, double bass, and guitar. Each instrument is given equal weight within the score; no sonority dominates. Furthermore, the instruments are seldom heard all at once, which garners a predominantly sparse compositional texture. This curious amalgam of wind, brass, and string timbres blend together to create an eerie sonic palette, and the unusual timbral combination is heightened further through Fusco often exploiting the extremes of instrumental pitch range. Fusco’s unique sound world works alongside Michio Takahashi and Sacha Vierny’s striking cinematography, feeding off of the images onscreen and inhabiting them, living through them, with a restraint that seems almost indifferent to the emotional needs of Hiroshima, mon amour’s viewer/listeners.
The film opens with a static negative image of vegetation peeking through earth, a potent metaphor for the rebuilding of Hiroshima. But this symbol of hope is not reinforced in the film’s soundtrack. As the credits run over the image, Fusco’s opening theme is heard, ominous and aloof in character and at odds with the promise of regeneration depicted onscreen, evoking dread through its jarring, incessant wind jabs, demented broken piano chords, and a piccolo’s mocking melody that resembles a child’s playground taunt. Adding to the discordant energy of Fusco’s cue is his choice in employing a shifting time signature, its unpredictability further heightening the atmosphere of instability. This unnerving opening is short-lived however, and relief comes through a plaintive chord progression on piano, its mournful, restrained phrasing in stark contrast to the agitated rhythms and tonalities that have proceeded it. Onscreen two bodies are shown entwined and shrouded in dust, the surfaces of their skin sparkling strangely and rendering them alien and unnatural through the fusion of dust and sweat being illuminated by bright light. We cannot see their faces, but we will soon learn that they are human: they are “She” and “He.”
The chord progression that emerges on the soundtrack here can be considered Hiroshima, mon amour’s “Lovers” theme, and it functions as a love-death requiem that echoes the film’s preoccupation with oblivion in all its forms: the oblivion that comes with giving oneself over to love entirely; the oblivion of hatred and the destruction of war; the ultimate oblivion of death. It is also tied to “She’s” memory, returning throughout the score in fragments or suggestion via the theme’s first two chords or even just a few notes. Though it is utilized predominately when “He” and “She” are shown being intimate onscreen, the theme also links their affair in Hiroshima to an earlier, ill-fated romance “She” undertook with a German soldier in her occupied hometown of Nevers during World War II. Her lover was killed by one of the townspeople and she was publicly shamed when the town learnt that she had been fraternizing with the “enemy.” The memory of this trauma has followed “She” to Hiroshima and affixed itself to “He” who, like the memory of the slain soldier, must also be “consigned to oblivion” upon “She’s” departure from Hiroshima.
As well as being heard in a truncated, motivic form that mirrors the selective and reductive nature of memory, Fusco’s “Lovers” theme is also performed on different instruments and in variation which suggests memory’s transformative capabilities. Towards the end of the film “He” requests that “She” stay in Hiroshima with him instead of returning to her husband in France. “She” then walks away from him but he follows silently behind her. A piano ostinato emerges on the soundtrack that is followed with dissonant intervals on winds. Then, a modified version of the first three chords of the “Lovers” theme follows on horn and strings briefly before disappearing when “He” approaches and once again asks her to stay. She continues to walk, is momentarily distracted by street musicians who pass by her performing a folk melody on guitar, before finding her thoughts turning once more to Nevers. As the onscreen image cuts between her current experience of Hiroshima’s buildings and signage and her memories of the sites of her native Nevers, the “Lovers” theme is once again heard, this time on solemn, almost sinister piano octaves. The theme eventually fuses with other musical ideas from Fusco’s score to create a chaotic musical tapestry, reflecting “She’s” ultimate unravelling, her inability to escape, as her memories and experiences of the past and present collide.