Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour—along with François Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless—is one of the three films that in 1959 launched the French New Wave movement in cinema. Although lumped together as New Wave films, each has a distinct character that expresses the personal vision of its director, an illustration of the auteur theory the New Wavers believed in so ardently. But as different from each other as these movies are, what they all have in common is the way they take the conventional elements of film narrative and synthesize them in unconventional ways—if you will, the way they take the language of movies and rearrange its syntax in unexpected and inventive ways.
Truffaut's The 400 Blows is in style the most conventional of the three. Godard's Breathless is more daring in its startling modulations of tempo: uptempo passages of rapid action filled with jump cuts are juxtaposed with mid-tempo passages of long, fluid tracking shots and slow, nearly static passages consisting largely of lengthy conversations between Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Of these three seminal films, Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour is the most innovative departure from cinematic conventions and the most highly stylized.
The movie concerns a French actress (she is never named) played by Emmanuelle Riva, who is in Hiroshima, Japan, to play a nurse in a movie about the aftermath of the nuclear bombing of the city, and the brief romance—two nights and one day—she has with a Japanese architect (also never named) played by Eiji Okada. In the first section of the movie, Resnais, at the time a well-known maker of documentary films, creates a long montage composed of several elements: tight close-ups of the intertwined limbs and torsos of Riva and Okada, archival newsreel-style footage of the ruined city (along with what appears to be some re-creations, possibly intended to be from the movie Riva is making), documentary shots of the victims of the bombing—burned, maimed, and deformed from birth defects as a result of the radiation—more documentary shots of the historical museum and its exhibits of the effects of the bombing on the city and its inhabitants, and shots of the modern city taken from a moving vehicle.
During this section of the movie, Riva narrates in voice-over the horrifying details of the bombing, which were followed in the days afterward by spontaneous demonstrations by the residents of Hiroshima, in which she says they expressed their "anger against the inequality advanced by one people over another . . . by certain races against other races . . . by certain classes against other classes." These sentiments, taken with the scarifying images of the devastated city and the horribly mutilated victims of the bombing, leave no doubt about the anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons sentiments of Resnais and Marguerite Duras, who wrote both the screenplay and the novel on which it is based.
It is only well into the movie that the camera finally pulls back to reveal the faces of Riva and Okada; until this point they have existed only as isolated body parts and disembodied voices without identity. This second section of the film, which begins around daybreak, concentrates on the romance between its two main characters, and gradually something resembling a plot begins to emerge. The next morning they breakfast, bathe, dress, and leave the hotel together—she in her costume, a nurse's uniform—for the movie set, where it is her last day of filming. Later that day they return to the hotel, and during this third section of the film we learn from their pillow talk much more about the two characters.
From this point on, the focus of the movie becomes Riva's character. Earlier that morning, just after she got out of bed but while Okada was still in bed, she walked back into the room and saw him lying stretched out on the bed. Just for an instant we saw, from her point of view, another man stretched out in the same position, this time clothed and with what appeared to be blood on him. Now as the two lovers spend their last day together in the hotel room, we begin to learn more about Riva's past as she tells Okada about herself, her reminiscences initiated by the confession that she once had a nervous breakdown.
Scenes from the present in the hotel room alternate with scenes from Riva's past as a teenager in rural France during World War II. The scenes set in the present are presented chronologically, while the scenes from the past are presented in a non-linear, stream-of-consciousness order. The details Riva tells Okada about her past allow the viewer to piece together incrementally a complete backstory that explains her present psychological state. Resnais and Duras do this in such a way that what might have been a confusing jumble slowly becomes a coherent narrative as bits and pieces of her experiences are revealed.
Today such an approach doesn't seem all that startling; it's even seen in more artistically daring television shows. But when this movie was made, it must have seemed a radical experiment. Movies had been starting at the end of the story, using frame stories and flashbacks, and jumping back and forth in time for quite a number of years. (Think of Le Jour se Lève and Citizen Kane, the more intricate screenplays of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, or any of a number of movies from the 1940s.) But such shifts were carefully cued to viewers by devices like voice-over narration, slow fades or dissolves, the image going out of focus, montages, or superimposed titles. Hiroshima, Mon Amour was perhaps the first movie to expect the viewer to follow the spontaneous stream-of-consciousness shifts of twentieth-century literature.
The character Riva plays is a fascinating and complex one. As she reveals more about herself, she becomes more agitated and more disinhibited, and we are able to see that she is a mercurial person subject to sudden moodswings and that the origins of her present emotional instability lie in her wartime experiences. Her intimacy with Okada and her presence in Hiroshima have liberated buried emotions and allowed her to relate them, possibly for the very first time, to another person. Like the city of Hiroshima itself, she is still suffering the devastating aftereffects of almost unimaginable wartime trauma.
The ultimate revelations—which involve a love affair with a German soldier, his killing by the Resistance, her discovery of his body (the brief flash we saw earlier), being shunned by the villagers as a collaborator, having a nervous breakdown, and being locked in a cellar—are made to Okada that night in a tea room in the city. During this episode, the film reaches its climax when Riva becomes hysterical and begins to lose control of herself. Up to this point, Okada has been essentially a passive character, acting as a catalyst to encourage Riva to tell her story and confront the horrific memories that have had such a devastating effect on her. Now he takes an active role to prevent her from going over the edge into madness again.
In desperation, he suddenly reaches out and gives her two sharp slaps on the face. These slaps resound on the soundtrack like thunderclaps. and at that moment all the ambient sounds of the tea room—the noises from the kitchen, the conversations of the other patrons, the juke box, the street noises from outside—are suddenly heard at quite loud volume. We realize that during the last parts of this sequence the only thing on the soundtrack has been Riva's voice. In a kind of aural equivalent of the subjective camera technique, where the camera shows the viewer what a character is seeing, the soundtrack has taken on the aural subjectivity of Riva. So hypnotized has she become by the experience of finally telling her story that she has withdrawn completely into her memories. With the slaps that break her reverie, we literally hear her re-enter the present, the here and now.
The concluding section of the movie shows the aftermath of the experience in the tea room. Shattered and disoriented, Riva wanders the nighttime streets as Okada follows her. For the last day he has been imploring her not to return to Paris but to stay in Hiroshima with him, and she has consistently refused. Around dawn she returns to her hotel room, where Okada finally catches up with her. Here she confesses to him that losing him would have as profound an effect on her as losing her first lover did; in a way, her emotional state has taken on a circular aspect, her emotional past merging with her emotional present.
In the enigmatic final scene, the couple are finally given identities of a sort: he says that he will call her Nevers (the name of the French village she came from), and she says that she will call him Hiroshima. Is it possible that the emotional gulf she has placed between them is at last closing? Whatever else this exchange may mean and whatever it may foreshadow for the future of the couple, it clearly indicates that at last they grasp the point Resnais and Duras have been aiming for: that we are—each of us—our own past, that our present identities are inseparable from our past experiences.
To say that Hiroshima, Mon Amour is about recovering repressed memories would, I think, be an oversimplification. It is more accurately about finding memories that have been lost, about rediscovering memories that have been forgotten. "Like you," Riva says to Okada at one point, "I have struggled with all my might not to forget. . . . I forgot." In the years since the events of her girlhood, Riva's traumatic memories have been assimilated and relegated to the background. But the experience of being in Hiroshima, where the reality of the past is inescapable, compels her to see that the same is true of her own life, that her past will always coexist with her present. "Why deny the obvious necessity of remembering?" she asks.
This is why the idiosyncratic style of Hiroshima, Mon Amour is not just a contrived stunt. Resnais's blending of documentary and fictional film and his non-linear and non-logical intermingling of events from Riva's present and her past replicate the subject and theme of the movie. Whereas Truffaut and Godard looked to American movies for inspiration, Resnais looked to literature. Hiroshima, Mon Amour is a very conceptual and very literary movie. It attempts to translate the literary techniques of the writers of the French nouveau roman movement, with their extreme authorial subjectivity and stream-of-consciousness fusion of past and present, into cinematic terms. Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the screenplay for Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1961), was the initiator of the movement, and Marguerite Duras one of its best-known practitioners. There is moreover a history of preoccupation with the nature of time and memory in both French philosophy (Henri Bergson) and French literature (Marcel Proust).
Hiroshima, Mon Amour was not the first film in which Resnais explored the way the past coexists with the present and constantly exerts influence on it. His best-known earlier documentaries Night and Fog (1955) and Toute la mémoire du Monde (1956) explored variations of this theme: the former in its examination of the Holocaust as viewed from a contemporary perspective, the latter in its examination of the Bibliothèque Nationale of France in its role as repository of the history of written knowledge. Nor would Hiroshima, Mon Amour be the last film in which Resnais dealt with the complicated relationship between past and present, forgetting and remembering.
With its unexpected shifts in time and place, tone, emphasis, and style, Hiroshima, Mon Amour is not a movie to watch casually. The only way to watch it is to surrender yourself to the film, to let it carry you along until you become acclimated to its style and rhythms and its story begins to emerge. This is not a filmmaking approach I would care to see often, particularly in less capable hands than those of Resnais. Occasionally both the forcefulness of the style and the sometimes overwrought pitch of the narration do threaten to overwhelm the emotions expressed in the story. But it is a unique movie, a real one-of-a-kind, a movie which is not only part of a historically important movement in film, but which has in its own right had great influence that can still be seen in movies today. As such, it should be watched by anyone seriously interested in film as an art form.