Out now on Blu-Ray and DVD, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) is a benchmark of French New Wave. While there were earlier French New Wave films, Hiroshima is key to the “Left Bank” films that came of the movement. In many ways, Alain Resnais’s film of a torrent affair became a victim of its own success, with movies of lesser quality trying to copy the characters’ dramatics without having the grounding of emotional and historical pain.
Opening with a prolonged prologue about the annihilation of Hiroshima over newsreel footage of the bombing, Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) and Lui (Eiji Okada) discuss the nature of memory and authenticity of the devastation. Elle, a French actor, spends her last day in the city with Lui, a local architect. Despite both having families, they engage in a brief and passionate affair as Lui tries to convince Elle to remain after her film has finished production. Throughout it all, they discuss the legacy of war, trauma, love, the nature of memory.
Hiroshima is, at its core, a debate between two people on the nature of memory and forgetfulness. The action in the film can be viewed as little more than a framing device for Elle and Lui to debate the difference between real and realism, forgetting and remembering. Non-liner flashbacks to Elle’s experience during the War in France provide a visual insight into how the mind processes emotional and physical ordeals.
However, seeing Hiroshima as a film just about memory sells this multi-layered story short. It’s a film of contradictions. A war film without war. A love story without romance. A movie set in Hiroshima that is about Nevers. A film of the world with only two characters who discuss memory yet desperately long to forget. It is only within these contradictions that this story could ever hope to take place, and they can both confront the grief of their own history. There is a reason why it’s considered one of the most influential films for the French New Wave.
Despite this, it does come with problems. Some of which are synonymous with French New Wave. The dialogue, for example. It captures the philosophy of the human condition, not its emotions or realism, coming across a stilted. Maybe it’s an each with the translation, and it makes sense in French, but it seems robotic.
The disk comes with audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie and an interview with film scholar François Thomas. Also included are interviews with Resnais and Riva and an interview with music scholar Tim Page about the film’s tense and disjointed score.
A hallmark of French New Wave, it that deals with emotional and philosophical confrontations. Hiroshima Mon Amour is a film that is accessible to all that levels us with a profound feeling that we can’t put into words, unlike many of its contemporaries.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is available now as part of the Criterion Collection