Friday, June 07, 2019

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

France / Japan, 90 minutes
Director: Alain Resnais
Writer: Marguerite Duras
Photography: Michio Takahashi, Sacha Vierny
Music: Georges Delerue, Giovanni Fusco
Editors: Jasmine Chasney, Henri Colpi, Anne Sarraute
Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada

From the title and into the early scenes, Hiroshima mon amour, a collaboration of director Alain Resnais and writer Marguerite Duras, gives the impression it's going to be a radically political type of story about nuclear anxiety and/or nuclear guilt. But that is eventually left behind, as the swirling mists of rampant prolific gray arty style slowly give way to two beautiful people talking, and the picture turns into something like an extended therapy session. Therapy not for us but for Elle (Emmanuelle Riva), who has a devastating and psychologically complex past to live with, many of whose issues she is still acting out. Besides, if it was going to be a political movie it probably would have made more sense to call it Nagasaki mon amour.

Here's the breakdown. Elle is a French actress making a film in Hiroshima about peace. Lui (Eiji Okada) is a Japanese architect and native of Hiroshima who missed the bomb (though his family did not) because he was away fighting the war. Lui (a masculine pronoun) is two years older than Elle (a feminine pronoun). (The names are a convenience via IMDb, never used in the movie. Some sources prefer to call them "She" and "He.") They are in their 30s, beautiful, middle-class, and materially comfortable. During the war, when she was 18 and living in the small French city of Nevers, where she was born and raised, Elle had a German boyfriend. Thus, for whatever reasons, maybe even coincidence, we see Elle as drawn (innocently or otherwise) to her nominal and/or former enemies. I should mention that in many ways Hiroshima mon amour doesn't have that much of a narrative presence, so I might already be dwelling too much on it.

I should also say this is a movie I've always had problems connecting with. It seems to promise a lot but delivers little, much like my experience with other major pictures by Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Jean-Luc Godard, which began to arrive around this time. The excitement was high for these maddeningly vaporous exercises. Here's an intoxicated Dilys Powell on Hiroshima mon amour: "Suddenly a new film. Really new, firsthand: a work which tells a story of its own in a style of its own. One is almost afraid to touch it." I'm more willing to go along with overheated assessments like this for Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad, which is more abstracted and so paradoxically more arch and effective. The mannequins in Hiroshima mon amour are way too much like real people to be behaving so unnaturally whereas in Marienbad nothing at all is natural—not even shadows.

On the other hand, my recent third try at Hiroshima mon amour was under somewhat unusual circumstances. I watched it while pinned down in my home for a six-hour period waiting for a utility worker to show up. I frequently paused the movie to look out my window, pace around, or when I thought I heard steps on the outer stairway. I took an even longer break while he was actually here and working. They seem to appreciate the conversation and I don't mind being on hand to answer questions. As a result, I took several hours to look at a fairly short movie and enjoyed it more than I ever have. Perhaps it's because Hiroshima mon amour is after all so dense—in the sense, that is, of packed full of information to process (as opposed to dumb).

There's much more to Elle's story, once Lui really gets her talking. I don't know Marguerite Duras that well, but the narrative here feels characteristic of her, and certainly Elle's character does. Elle's affair with the German soldier was a disgrace to her family. All this comes piecemeal—I wondered how her family and friends felt about her boyfriend when she first mentioned it but we don't find out until later. And it's bad. Her father loses his business. She is assaulted, shorn of her hair, confined to a cellar by her humiliated family. On the eve of the war's end the German soldier is shot sniper-style by someone in Nevers. Elle finds him where he is left, dying, and lies down with him until he is gone. What a trauma.

The impact at large of the movie Hiroshima mon amour can be felt in many ways. As primarily an interplay between two lovers, it has some of the mood of In the Mood for Love. It's also like any movie that is primarily a dialogue between two people, lovers or otherwise—Before Sunset, My Dinner With Andre, etc. An even more recent movie I thought of is Emmanuelle Riva's late turn with director Michael Haneke, Amour. In fact, some points of Hiroshima and Elle had to be percolating in the back of the minds of both Riva and Haneke when they made it. "In a few years," Lui says to Elle at one point, "when I have forgotten you ... I'll remember you as the symbol of love's forgetfulness. I'll think of this story as of the horror of forgetting." One small aspect of Hiroshima is seen magnified in Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, the seeming shifting circumstances of the primary relationship. At first Elle and Lui appear to be lovers, single and available to one another. Later on they are both definitely married to others, and then it becomes ambiguous again.

So, yeah, all this name-checking clearly adds up to Hiroshima mon amour as a certain landmark of cinematic significance. Don't forget Dilys Powell! But it's a landmark for me more on the order of most Antonioni movies, a kind of homework assignment in the actual experience and rarely a pleasure, except apparently when someone is coming to look at my windows and I can take a lot of breaks. As for Resnais, his intensely fractured documentary about concentration camps, Night and Fog, is more worth seeing first, and then Last Year at Marienbad. I also suggest waiting until your hot water heater or cable-TV or something needs attention to really bear down on Hiroshima mon amour.

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