Pale shapes loom in a dark room. They move sinuously and we see they are human, entwined arms and legs. Closer, curiously, they are covered in something whitish. Sugar crystals? Moonlit sand? The ghostly debris of an atomic bomb?
(We can’t help but flashback to the ash of fallen 9-11 buildings…).
A woman’s manicured fingers press into a man’s naked back. “We fit like a hand in a glove,” she coos. He nuzzles her. “You are destroying me,” she says. “You are good for me.” Repeatedly she utters this seeming contradiction. Is he bad for her, or good — or both? Is it not the nature of passionate love to constantly waver in the eye of the beloved?
We learn it is 1959 and she is a French actress on location in Hiroshima for an international production of an anti-war film. He is a Japanese architect whom she picked up in a tearoom the night before. The perfect coupling of their one-night stand astonishes both of them. How amazing that they could find such love in Hiroshima, once the city of unimaginable horrors.
Her eyes caress his sleeping body. Suddenly she sees, not him, but the young German soldier she loved when she was a teenager in World War II. This quick cut, a cinematic technique familiar to audiences today, was shocking when director Alain Resnais first used it in this film. Also new was his surrealistic imagery, his attempt to portray the unconscious nature of his characters, the juxtaposition of what really is, with what could be or could have been. A celebrated documentary filmmaker for a decade before he made Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais punctuated the dreamy lovers tale with ghastly real images of the bomb’s destruction.
These unconventional, sometimes disturbing, modes of storytelling made Resnais one of France’s most honored film directors. He wasn’t technically a member of the “French New Wave” (1958 to late 1960s), younger directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, who saw themselves as their films’ solo auteurs. Rather, Resnais was associated with “The Left Bank,” filmmakers who were active in left-wing politics and liked to collaborate with other artists. The Oscar-nominated script for Hiroshima Mon Amour was written by Resnais’ colleague, French novelist Marguerite Dumas (1914-1996).
Is it possible, the woman in the film wonders, that this Japanese stranger could have revived the memory of her first lover, whom she thought she had successfully sent to oblivion? In fact, she had gone mad when he was killed and the angry townspeople shaved off her hair to disgrace her. Could memory be so capricious, and so cruel?
She tells the architect the tragic story of her first love. In the telling, he and the German soldier seem to become the same man. He doesn’t object. Or does he? Does he want to dissolve into her memories? Or does he already intend that his memory of her will be no more than the ashes of Hiroshima?
Alan Resnais, born in 1922, died last month in Paris at age 91. His prolific career spanned more than 60 years. Hiroshima Mon Amour — lauded by many as a masterpiece, dismissed by others, such as American film critic Pauline Kael, as incomprehensible — was his first feature film. His latest film, Aimer, Boire Et Chanter (Life Of Riley) opened just last month.
In Resnais’ honor, Carlos Steward of Classic World Cinema plans to show four of Resnais’ films on Friday nights this month. What should audiences unfamiliar with Resnais’ work expect? Especially Hiroshima Mon Amour, 55 years after it was made? “Don’t try to ‘understand’ the film,” Steward advises. “Be open. To whatever happens to you as you see it — and enjoy!”