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Resnais shatters time in Hiroshima Mon Amour

by Sharad Raj



YEAR: 1959

The brilliance of any art form lies in its versatility, and cinema is no different. It reinvents itself in the hands of master filmmakers. The moving image is itself surprised, every time an auteur evolves a new syntax. The great Alain Resnais did just that with his debut feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, in 1959. Resnais had directed almost 20 documentaries before this and he was commissioned to make a documentary on the dastardly attack on Hiroshima during World War II. Resnais found himself at a loss to encompass the most horrific act of twentieth century in a documentary. It is then that the French novelist and experimental filmmaker Marguerite Duras suggested to make a love story set in Hiroshima. Things fell in place for Resnais and he asked Duras to write the screenplay. Duras was nominated for an Oscar, for the very first film she wrote.

Hiroshima Mon Amour’s release in 1959 was a groundbreaking event in movie history. It is difficult to quantify the breadth of Hiroshima’s impact. It remains one of the most influential films in the short history of the medium, because it liberated moviemakers from linear construction. Without Hiroshima, many films thereafter would have been unthinkable. After the first screening of the film Anatole Dauman, one of the film’s producers, told Resnais, “I’ve seen all this before, in Citizen Kane, a film that breaks chronology and reverses the flow of time.” To which Resnais replied, “Yes, but in my film time is shattered.” The great French auteur Eric Rohmer thought Hiroshima Mon Amour was the most important post war film and the first modern sound film. While another master

Filmmaker, Jacques Rivette said this was the best film he had seen in 500 years.

Hiroshima Mon amour is one enormous conversation over a 36-hour long period between a French actress Elle, referred to as “Her”, and a Japanese architect Lui, referred to as “Him”. They have had a brief relationship and are now separating. The two debate memory and forgetfulness as she prepares to depart, comparing failed relationships with the bombing of Hiroshima and the perspectives of people inside and outside the incidents. The early part of the film recounts, in the style of a documentary the effects of the atomic bomb narrated by two unidentified characters, naked and locked in an embrace, to provide cinema with one of the most outstanding opening sequence. While the second part is the prolonged narration of a failed love affair by “Her” or Elle in her hometown, Nevers, in France

The film uses highly structured repetitive dialogue, with “Her” narrating and “Him” interjecting to say she is wrong, lying or confused. “Him” or Lui contradicts her statements with the film's famous line "You are not endowed with memory." Although he disagrees and rejects many of the things she says, he pursues her constantly. The film is peppered with dozens of brief flashbacks to her life; in her youth when she was shamed and had her head shaved as punishment for having a love affair with a German soldier. The film deftly juxtaposes personal with the collective. It lingers on the question of memory and how much we will remember of events as horrific as Hiroshima bombing.

Hiroshima Mon Amour’s status as a milestone in film history is both a blessing and a curse. It can be hard for new audiences to find their way to the actual movie, buried as it is beneath its own daunting reputation, monumental subject matter, and high-cultural pedigree. Modern cinema owes a lot to the film that is intellectually demanding and emotionally devastating.

Is Hiroshima Mon Amour the story of a woman? Or is it the story of a place where a tragedy has occurred? Or of two places, housing two separate tragedies, one massive and the other private? In a sense, these questions belong to the film itself. The fact that Hiroshima continues to resist a comforting sense of definition fifty years after its release may help to account for Resnais’s nervousness when he set off for the shoot in Japan. He was convinced that his film was going to fall apart, but the irony is that he and Duras had never meant for it to come together in the first place. What they created, with the greatest delicacy and emotional and physical precision, was an anxious aesthetic object, as unsettled over its own identity and sense of direction as the world was unsettled over how to go about its business after the cataclysmic horror of World War II. With its narrative of an actress going to Hiroshima (to play a part in a film “about peace”) expecting to erase her tragic past, only to find her memories magnified by the greater collective memory of atomic destruction, Hiroshima never locates a fixed point towards which emotion, morality, and ethics can gravitate.

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