1959 was to prove a banner year for the French New Wave. Truffaut took home the Palme d'Or ("400 Blows") and Alain Resnais won the international critics' prize for his first feature film "Hiroshima Mon Amour" (Hiroshima My Love), which was shown out of competition. Resnais had, by this time, already made a name for himself as a documentary film-maker, with short portraits of painters (Van Gogh and Gauguin) and the devastating holocaust documentary "Night and Fog" (Nuit et brouillard, 1955). It was a 30 minute collage which was filmed in color and also featured black and white photographs and newsreel footage. "Night and Fog" focused on the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War and displayed the influence of Sergei Eisenstein's celebrated montage sequences.
The film cut seamlessly between the sites of the concentration camps and the horrors that they housed during the war. A truly harrowing history lesson told with dramatic panache, Resnais' documentary won the Prix Jean Vigo (an award in the cinema of France) and prefigured "Hiroshima Mon Amour" by employing newsreel material and creatively interweaving the past and present.
The story begins in 1957, Hiroshima. A French actress from Paris is in Japan to make an international film on peace. She meets and shares a brief and passionate affair with a Japanese architect. The woman, whose name we never learn, is set to France the day after she meets the Japanese man, who similarly remains anonymous. Both are married and have children. Both have other lives. However, they are impossibly drawn to one another. As time passes, these lovers from very different backgrounds struggle to understand not only each other, but also each other's culture.
Resnais collaborated with acclaimed author Marguerite Duras whose dazzling Oscar nominated screenplay frequently borders on the poetic. Resnais' treatment of time in "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is considered revolutionary for film art. He changed the way we perceive time on screen and, to fully comprehend his achievement, we have to take a lead from his heroine who says, "It's my idea that we see nothing without being willing to struggle to learn the way to see." Resnais' intelligent use of time is multi-layered. For example, time is running out for the couple from the film's very opening as the women is set to leave the city.
More importantly, the narrative switches seamlessly between current and historical events. The way in which different eras bleed into one another here also recalls the novel of Virginia Woolf. Resnais' rejection of conventional narrative structure would later be echoed in the work of Godard, who famously commented that every film must have a beginning, middle and an end, although not necessarily in that order.
"The past and the present coexist, but the past shouldn't be in flashback", Resnais told in an interview. As Resnais' film moves between past and present, it combines a number of other opposites; war and peace, reality and memory, public and private, life and death, madness and sanity, truth and lies. There are other opposites at play, namely documentary and fiction, memorably blended together in the film's opening minutes. Resnais documentary background is very much on display in this enthralling sequence; a dazzling collage detailing the horrors of Hiroshima in much the same fashion as "Night and Fog" dealt with the Holocaust. Resnais patrols the halls of Hiroshima museum, picking out exhibits with the same unflinching eye. The comb made by a concentration camp prisoner in the earlier film, here finds its match with a clump of human hair shed from a Hiroshima victim.
"Hiroshima Mon Amour" amounts to a two-hander and Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada deliver strong performances, veering between sensuousness and seriousness. Riva, in her first feature film, skilfully handles the bulk of the dialogue. The film is also technically excellent. The use of light is constantly striking, especially during the indoors and the woman's harrowing cave memories. The editing astonishes throughout, notably in the beginning but also during the woman's recollections of a youthful romance.
Alain Resnais, still directing at the age of 91, proved his directorial dexterity with this groundbreaking and enigmatic brief encounter. A landmark in French cinema, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" offers both a challenging and rewarding experience. Resnais' next film "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961) is another very complicated study of time and memory.
Hiroshima Mon Amour -- IMDb