This debut feature from Alain Resnais is less playful and more rigorous in its deconstruction of film form than its French New Wave counterparts (Breathless, Jules and Jim), yet the movie very much belongs to that revolutionary movement.
In fact, the film’s extended, tone-poem prologue feels like a sequence from the very future that the French New Wave would usher in. Hiroshima Mon Amour opens with a shot of entwined limbs that appear to be sprinkled with a coating of dust. In a following shot, the limbs are clearly glistening with sweat, causing us to question what we saw before. Meanwhile, we hear a voiceover debate between a man and woman, in which she insists on things she has seen, while he repeatedly tells her, “You saw nothing in Hiroshima.” We, however, see plenty, as Resnais intercuts images as startling for their compositional beauty (he’s an expert at framing architectural details) as they are for their ghastliness (the physical defects of Hiroshima bombing victims are shown in detail).
What is all this, we wonder, even as we’re mesmerized by the formal ingenuity. Hiroshima Mon Amour goes on to only partially provide an answer. It turns out the woman is Elle (Emmanuelle Riva), a French actress on location in Hiroshima, and the man is Lui (Eiji Okada), a Japanese architect. The story proper follows them the day after a one-night stand, which has shaken them deeply. This is partly, the movie suggests, because its cross-cultural nature has caused unresolved emotions about their war-time experiences to resurface.
The tone-poem prologue feels like a sequence from the future that the French New Wave would usher in.
The triumph of the film, which was written by Marguerite Dumas, is the way it manages to evoke both global angst and personal despair without trivializing the former or inflating the latter. Elle is authentically shaken by the echoes of the bombing that she encounters in Hiroshima. They remind her of her own indifference at the time it happened, as well as her inability to even process such catastrophic human devastation. At the same time, Hiroshima recalls the trauma and loss she suffered in France at the end of the war. In a sense, her leap into the arms of Lui is meant to be a buffer against those memories – a way of using momentary pleasure to assuage her persistent unease – yet the irony is that he, and this place, won’t allow that to happen.
Riva and Okada are both riveting – they’re surely models for the unrequited ecstasy of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love – but it is Resnais who makes Hiroshima Mon Amour a futuristic fever dream. He effortlessly moves us between past and present, personal and political. Delicately intermingling the couple’s present-tense moments together, Elle’s memories of her home town of Nevers and visual reminders of the attack on Hiroshima, the movie resembles a subconscious collage more than a proper narrative.
At one point, Resnais accomplishes this with one of the most beautiful dissolves in all of cinema. Prompted by Lui – who wants to devour knowledge of her past even more than he does her body – Elle turns from his embrace to recall her first, ill-fated love – a German soldier. The image of Elle and Lui begins to fade, as the shape of the soldier slowly forms between them until it dominates the screen. The moment is exquisite, and devastating: three cultures, three hearts, commingled and doomed all at once, in the same frame.