Back Catalog Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour

Hiroshima Mon Amour 1

The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all the movies I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films. 

Why does Breathless get all the hype? Where that movie has cool cynicism and Parisian wandering to recommend it, Hiroshima Mon Amour has profound discussions of memory and peace wrapped up in a dual focus on a two-day relationship and atomic bombs. That’s a movie that says something! Here’s a movie that makes you feel! Think! And don’t tell me it’s not formally daring! It might not be all cut up, but damn, those flashbacks and that prologue are spectacularly inventive. And the relationship here, between Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada, feels like a real thing captured on film rather than a pastiche of genre conventions. What’s up, cinephiles?

Since I can’t control what you all like, I’ll instead spend my time talking about why I like Hiroshima Mon Amour so much. I was compelled to buy it when I watched Night and Fog about a year ago and found it to be a fascinating documentary about remembrance. I wasn’t surprised to find that this movie also began its journey to the screen as a documentary, because the opening ten minutes or so are filled with slice-of-life moments from Hiroshima 10 years after the bomb intercut with horrific images of the very human aftermath. We see what looks like a busy modern city road and then a young child with birth defects, a tour of the memorial museum then a blackened, burned body. Over all of this is a fascinating dialogue between two disembodied voices. One talks about her memories of living in Hiroshima for the past few months, the other admonishing her that she’ll forget everything soon. Since the two characters are withheld from our eyes, their words become all we have to judge them by. And he, the admonishing voice, is right. If what we see on the screen is the woman’s memories, they’ve already fragmented into moments, so the act of forgetting has begun before we can even know to remember. It’s a stunning opening, made even more impressive when the two finally enter the picture and we see them clearly preparing to go about their day after spending the night together. Everything takes on a new meaning, and we turn into a romantic mode. Maybe.

Hiroshima Mon Amour 2

Alain Resnais doesn’t stop his audio-visual juxtaposition at the bravura opening sequence, though. It returns towards the end when the couple, now very familiar to the audience and each other, engage in more acts of remembering over a late night drink on the day before Riva is supposed to return to Paris. The tea room is darkly lit and they have enough room to have an intimate conversation at their table. It is there where Riva tells the story of her previous affair cut short by circumstance. Resnais begins by having her tell the story and then cuts to the story’s events happening on screen. It’s maybe not groundbreaking anymore, but it is used so effectively here, especially as her memories have no dialogue except their shared conversation. Riva recounts her affair with a Nazi soldier who was shot by her fellow townspeople when the war ended. Riva and Okada map themselves onto the two people present in her memories and use the opportunity to talk about their ability to remember the past, whether they want to or just let the past fade away. At this point everything else has faded away, too, a fact only brought to the audience’s attention when her story ends and the noise of the tea room’s patrons abruptly rejoins the audio mix. Again, a familiar technique, but an effective one. When one is in love or war, everything else can fade away into nothingness. Experiences are funny that way, and memories even more so.

It’s no surprise, then, that the movie doesn’t really have a whole ton going on plot-wise. The two characters kind of circle around each other for the length of their time together. Both are married and have children, the affair cannot last. It reminded me a lot of Brief Encounter, which I also recently watched, and shares an understanding that films are also short affairs. Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of those movies that would not work on the page. It isn’t just made using cinematic techniques, it is cinematic technique. It is showing you things, telling you other things at the same time, and then reminding you that neither of these are the real thing, only memories that you’re already forgetting.


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