Expectations are a difficult thing to overcome while watching a film. Especially if said film is considered to be one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. I remember watching Citizen Kane for the first time and thinking “this is good, but the best that ever was?” Luckily for me, there was a short documentary about the film at the end of my VHS rental. It went over all the innovative techniques that Orson Welles invented for that movie.
And so it was for me and Hiroshima mon amour, a film I’d heard about for years but until yesterday had never gotten around to watching. For its entire 90-minute run time, the recognition of the film as one of the world’s greatest never left my mind, and I admit, there was a bit of disappointment that came over me as the minutes passed. To be sure it is a very good film, but I struggled to see how it entered the pantheon. Luckily for me, I was watching the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray and it is chock full of interviews and commentary to better help me understand why it is considered to be so great.
The film begins with a close-up on two naked bodies, intertwined. At first, they are covered in ash as if to remind you that this is Hiroshima after all, then sweat. She (Emmanuelle Riva) is a French actress (and she’s never named), and he (Eiji Okada) is a Japanese architect (also never named). Images of the ruins of Hiroshima play out over the scene. As does newsreel footage of the aftermath of the atomic bomb with pictures of its victims and memorials and protests. The woman recounts these things that she has seen on her visit to the city. The man says she has seen nothing. As compared to him in the implication.
He is from Hiroshima. His family died in the bomb while he was away fighting the war. She is from the French city of Nevers but moved to Paris as a teenager. She says she never wants to return to Nevers. We learn that they met the night before in a cafe and that she is married and has children. He wants to see her again later that day, but she says she has to fly back to Paris the day after.
Later, he visits her while she is filming a movie about peace. They go back to his place where she learns his wife is out of town. They make love again. They visit a tea room and talk. She tells the story of how she loved a German soldier during the Occupation. She saw him get shot on the day the town was liberated. She held him while he died. The townsfolk cut her hair short when they learned of her affair. Her parents locked her in her room and sometimes the cellar while her hair grew out. She went crazy for a while. The man wishes she would stay in Hiroshima with him, but she never wants to feel heartbreak again.
Interspersed throughout all of this are flashbacks to her life in Nevers. Sometimes they are long, containing entire scenes, sometimes they are just flashes, lasting only seconds. She watches the man sleep and when his hands twitch during the dreaming, she flashes on her dying lover’s hands that also twitched. While she is telling the story of her past, we see what she is telling him. The flashbacks work like memories.
It was one of the first times flashbacks had been incorporated into a film in this manner. That’s part of the “most influential film ever made” thing the critics talk about. It is one of the earliest and most important films of the French New Wave. It was the first film directed by Alain Resnais and was written by novelist Marguerite Duras (whose screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award).
I’ve been reading that the opening scene in which we hear her talk about her experiences in Hiroshima while we see images of the city’s destruction is very moving to some people. I have to admit I found it a little confusing and not particularly moving. Confusing, because I was expecting a love story and that scene felt more documentary in nature (a few years prior Resnais had directed Night and Fog, a documentary about the Holocaust, and originally Hiroshima mon amour was going to be a documentary about the bombing). Unmoving, because I’ve been to Hiroshima and the museum seen in the film. I’ve also seen (and reviewed) Hiroshima, the 1953 film about the atomic bombing of which Hiroshima mon amour swipes footage from. My familiarity with these images coupled with my confusion over what type of film this was caused that scene to be less than perhaps others has found it to be. I suspect further viewings in the years to come will find me appreciating it more as I’ll know what is coming.
I did find it very interesting that she was in love with a German soldier. It isn’t indicated that he was a hard-line Nazi, but he was part of the Occupation and it is well documented that they did not treat the French with much kindness. The film is sympathetic to her, but I found my feelings complicated knowing her affair was with the enemy. Certainly, that is how the townspeople felt about it.
The performances of the two leads are masterful. This isn’t a film full of action or big emotional swings. It is a film about two people who have seen and done much, are overwhelmed by grief and remorse and regret, and still find each other. Their performances are nuanced and beautifully realized.
It is a rich and rewarding film. It didn’t always work for me, and some of that comes from my expectations of it being one of the all-time greats. I look forward to watching it again in the future with different expectations and hopefully, a richer understanding of what is actually on the screen.
The Criterion disk will certainly help with that as it is full of extras. It comes with a new, beautiful-looking 4K restoration and contains a featurette all about that restoration. There is an audio commentary from film historian Peter Cowie, interviews with Alain Resnais from 1960 and 1991, and Emmanuelle Riva from 1959 and 2003. There are new interviews with film scholars François Thomas and Tim Page plus the usual booklet complete with photos from the film and a nice essay.