Release date: 18 January
Director: Alain Resnais
Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada
Often quoted as one of the most influential films of modern cinema, “Hiroshima Mon Amour” was first screened at Cannes in 1959, a mere 14 years after the atomic bomb fell on the Japan. Yet it’s taken another 57 years – and a re-mastered version – to bring it to DVD for the very first time.
The narrative is deceptively simply. Actress Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) is in Hiroshima to appear in an international film on peace when she meets married architect Lui (Eiji Okada). Their affair is brief and the film starts as it’s drawing to its close, but their few days together are intense as they discuss their differing experiences of war. But, in the context of the film, it’s essentially a device to create a meditation on the horror of war, suffering and memory.
It starts with their entwined, naked bodies. Not that we see anything explicit – it was made in the late 50s, after all. Then we hear their voices in a conversation that’s more like a Q and A in highly stylised language. He asks the questions about what she’s seen and experienced in the city, she tells him and he contradicts her. And all the way through, the word Hiroshima is repeated like a mantra. The setting eventually expands from their bed to their hotel room and eventually the outside world: they watch a peace procession, which has been staged for the film crew, and spend time together in a bar in a city that never seems to sleep.
Regardless of their location, the focus is always either on the couple together or on Elle in isolation. And, through a series of stylised flashbacks, we discover far more about her than we do about him. Their conversations are concerned with unpeeling her memories of wartime France, of how an affair with a German soldier led her to have her head shaved – which she likens to the hair that “the women of Hiroshima will find has fallen out in the morning” – be ostracised by the community and hidden away by her family on the pretext that she was dead. It’s an experience that still lives with her. Her personal Hiroshima.
Director Alain Resnais originally intended the film to be a documentary and some of that still remains. There’s a walk around an exhibition dedicated to the effects of the atomic bomb, with exhibits like a warped bicycle, masses of metal bottle tops melted together into a distorted shape. There’s graphic archive footage and photographs of real people with horrific injuries. In contrast, the Hiroshima of 1959 is a pristine new city, littered with rugged memorials to the events of 1945 and populated by clean cut, young people. But, despite appearances, it’s a city still coping with the aftermath of disaster. The scars are there, just under the surface: they run deep but occasionally they’re there for all to see. The crowds at the peace procession witnessed by Elle and Lui are mainly young and immaculately dressed in light clothes – except for one older man in shabby clothes and dark blotches on his face and arms. His brief appearance, ignored by everybody around him, makes the parade look well-intentioned but superficial.
The film makes full use of its moody black and white palate, creating subtle and ever-changing shadows and almost imperceptible reflections of night-time lights on windows and water. It gives the city an other-worldly feel and reminds us that all the people on the screen live under a shadow – the Cold War and the threat of another atomic strike.
“Hiroshima Mon Amour” is a film that stands repeated viewings. Correction. It needs repeated viewings to fully understand the depths of its examination of war, pain, memory and grief. In its day, it was regarded as an art house movie. Today, it’s simply a classic.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is released on DVD on Monday, 18 January.