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Movie Reviews

Hiroshima Mon Amour



Reviewer: Samantha Glavin

Director: Alain Resnais

Stars: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada

Released: 1959

Hiroshima mon amour (1959) is not for the faint of heart. The classic Alain Resnais film, hailed as a hallmark of the French New Wave genre, hijacks its viewers and throws them into the middle of emotional trauma. Yet, despite the arresting impact of its plot, the film has a smooth and intimate quality, as tender as the loving embraces between the man and woman depicted in its opening sequence.

Hiroshima mon amour is a story of love amidst disaster, both global and personal. It follows the relationship between a man and woman whose true names we never learn. She, played by Emmanuelle Riva, is a beautiful French actress in Hiroshima to film a new “peace” movie. He, played by Eiji Okada, is a kind, French-speaking native of the city. The two are mutually attracted though both married. The film follows their affair and the possibility of love between them, all leading to a stark realization of how fragile love really is.

This sounds like a basic and uninteresting plot, but Resnais adds depth by injecting smooth style and realistic substance. Rather than trace the rocky course of the pair’s affair in the context of an average setting, he places it in front of the atomic bomb disaster of Hiroshima. This gives the film its jarring edge, never backing away from gruesome depictions of the death and horror that descended upon Hiroshima. In the opening sequence, we see the pair with their arms wrapped around each other as the woman’s sweet voice describes her eye-opening experience at the Hiroshima museum. As her voice, calm but also hiding desperation, describes the macabre exhibits, we see it all depicted on screen from a tourist’s point of view—the images of burned bodies, flaking skin, piles of the dead—shown as if we too were there at Hiroshima and witnessed the horror first hand.

This sets up a major theme of the movie—how can you truly understand a horrible experience if you weren’t there? Every time she says she will never forget what she saw, he firmly tells her she has nothing to remember since she wasn’t there. This idea is challenged in the end when the man becomes entwined in her own stories of loss, and feels pain for her. He feels he remembers all that she went through and was there with her.

Images of death and injury are layered over those of love and intimacy—expressed best in the opening sequence of the film. We see the pair embracing each other, their skin smooth and light, but then we see the shot again, and their skin is burned and bubbling, just as the victims of the attack were. It is small details and elemental combinations such as these that define Resnais as a director and give power to his work. He is not making a film that’s just stylistically impressive but one that makes a statement on life itself.

The female character is a force to behold on screen—beautiful and graceful in her speech and movements. But like most elements of the film, her calm is deceiving. She reveals to her counterpart that she was locked away in a basement for years as punishment for falling in love with a German solider during the war and went mad. As the pair becomes closer, their connection deepens from playful one night stands to a complex, sorrowful relationship with increasingly visible cracks. As they fall more in love, the more her own fault lines surface, and the fragility of both their existences is exposed.

Hiroshima mon amour is born out of the recent development of the New Wave genre.  Resnais takes the raw, gritty elements of neorealism (sharp camera movements and choppy editing), and blankets it with a layer of intimacy that confronts the big mysteries of life, be they love, loss, or fear. The film, stylistically, is beautiful to behold—the black and white casts a stark, haunting feel to the newly-rebuilt city of Hiroshima, and frequent close ups force the viewer to focus on how the way a face can be a mask as well as a window to the soul. Though smooth on the surface, the film is still frayed enough around the edges to allow the viewer to slip into the middle of the characters’ affair.

The power of Hiroshima mon amour is the juxtaposition of massive and personal disasters. A major theme is the duality of life—disasters come in varying sizes, and love is both healing and damaging. The woman visits Hiroshima to escape her own grief and become absorbed in someone else’s but realizes that the city, and the love she has for the man, only revive her past trauma and plunges her back into her own grief.

The two come to understand that what brought them together were their losses and their grief, and that they will only ever know each other as these disasters. This is seen in the last lines of the film—“Hiroshima. That is your name,” she says to him. “Yes, that is my name,” he says back. “Your name is Nevers. Nevers in France.”

Upon finishing the film, you are so emotionally affected that you carry on your daily life in a daze, wondering the futility of love itself but also the promise it can hold, the risks one must take and the gamble with broken hearts. These are all things Hiroshima mon amour presents to the viewer, and like the ghosts of the past, it will haunt you and follow you.

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