Hiroshima mon amour is a structurally and emotionally shattered love story and it’s one of my favorite from the List because, like Luciano Visconti’s Senso or, to a milder degree, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, it’s a portrait of how, by accepting a lover into your life and falling very deeply in love with them, you’re embarking on a process of self-effacement, of becoming both more and less than what you were before they came onto the scene. All three of these movies are torrid and genuinely romantic and, in their different ways, sexy; but they’re also all attuned to the quietly devastating consequences of the connections they beautify and dramatize and celebrate and lament. And Hiroshima mon amour is particularly brutal in that respect because it’s set in, well, Hiroshima, about a decade after the atomic bomb fell there and killed hundreds of thousands of citizens, fewer than a tenth of whom were military, and so the setting of this short-lived romance between Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada feels haunted. It’s about to end because she’s going back to France.
They talk about it.
But their long (and migrating) conversation about love and loss and country and memory feels like a conversation of at least two things at once, one of those two things being history; the bombing of Hiroshima, specifically; and what I find so beautiful about this movie is that it’s directed by Alain Resnais, who a few years prior to this had made the horrifically beautiful and powerful Holocaust documentary Night and Fog; the project was born of his being asked to make a picture about Hiroshima. A documentary. And it was only when, after watching a number of very good documentaries already in existence about the subject, he realized he couldn’t make a nonfiction film that said anything new. Once he realized he couldn’t make a constructive contribution to the historical discourse, he decided to go the route of fiction.
His movie “about” Hiroshima becomes a love story set so many years after the bomb. And, still with a documentarian spirit, the movie opens with a disturbing montage of the mutilated survivors of the blast, charred and hairless and shorn of eyelids. Confrontational imagery. Same as what Resnais presented us with in Night and Fog—except it’s different because, when we’re being shown these images, we’re hearing the film’s lovers in voiceover, conversing, and the nameless woman (French) is telling the nameless man (Japanese) that she saw these images at the Hiroshima museum. She tells us what she saw, and then Resnais shows us what she saw; and then her Japanese lover says, “You didn’t see anything.”
He says it again and again.
And Resnais expands on this in an audio interview, available on the Criterion Channel, saying that he realized an atrocity of this scale, similar to the Holocaust, cannot be communicated visually. To show the horror is to relegate it to an image. It might tug at our heartstrings, but it doesn’t engage the deeper parts of us, the endless parts.
What’s endlessly human is imagination.
Thus, he theorizes that one can most effectively communicate the horror of such an event by suggesting the sprawl of it.
To show the bomb going off, the leveled buildings, the clouds of debris–that’s all too matter-of-fact. To communicate the impact of the event, you show things like the glass-encased clumps of hair that women pulled effortlessly from their heads after being irradiated. The “bouquet” of heat-fused bottlecaps. The children without mouths.
You pile up the evidence of trauma, the stories and images of aftermath, and in so doing you reconstruct a facsimile of what took place–but it’s all suggestive. (Sorry if this is incredibly abstract!)
In sum: It isn’t the bomb or the blast that you’re coming to understand. This is not a story about a bomb. This is the story of a national trauma, a catastrophe.
The story of an event resides in a portrait of its aftermath.
The aftermath is the story.
And this is Resnais’s metaphor for love. Which is beautiful, I think.
The reason She is putting up a kind of emotional wall as she’s preparing to leave for France is because she’s been here before. She’s been romantically attached to someone. She is now, every day, the walking ruins of a great and catastrophic love. She is the hair, the eyes, the clothing leftover. She loves Him and would like to connect in a deep way but she knows that such connections are, if you’ll forgive the crassness of the word in this context, explosive: hot and eruptive–but also radioactive. Poisoning. Anyway, look: this movie’s no romp, but it’s extremely powerful and I highly recommend it.