Like the anonymous entwined bodies glimpsed in its opening moments, things tend to commingle in Alain Resnais’s revolutionary first feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour. Marguerite Duras’s oblique script builds on an ever-shifting groundwork of spatial and temporal indeterminacies, a structural technique borrowed from the French “new novel,” in order to suture together past and present, private and public, desire and trauma. Moreover, the facticity of the film itself is continually called into question by Resnais’s decision to blur the boundaries between nonfiction and fiction. What began as a straightforward documentary about the atom bomb mutated along the way into something richer and stranger. Like Resnais’s earlier documentary short, Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour pushes against the very notion that disaster on the scale of the Holocaust and Hiroshima can ever be truly or entirely representable.
Duras’s narrative is really little more than one single shard of experience. A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) in Hiroshima to shoot “a film about peace” has a one-night stand with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). Her explorations of the reconstructed city, especially the ultramodern theme park-like memorials, reawakens painful memories of a wartime affair with a German soldier (Bernard Fresson) that culminated in public humiliation at the hands of her zealously patriotic parents. Arranged like a piece of modernist music, Hiroshima Mon Amour eschews linear development, advancing instead as a contrapuntal duet filled with repetitions and subtle variations on a theme: the necessary persistence of memory, as well as its obverse, the horror of inevitably forgetting.
Hiroshima Mon Amour also happens to be a rapturously gorgeous film. Sacha Vierny’s moody monochrome cinematography reaches a crescendo of expressivity in the long nighttime scene wherein the actress and her lover sit in a bar by the river Ota. Scintillating refractions off the water play over Riva’s features as she relates with mounting intensity her character’s feelings of disconsolation and degradation. The somber score by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco adds elegiac grace notes to Vierny’s unmistakably noirish visuals. We have arrived at the emotional epicenter of the film with this remarkable scene.
Being essentially a film for two voices, Hiroshima Mon Amour lends itself to the monologue or solo recitative. Especially harrowing are the actress’s words near the end of the film’s documentary overture: “Listen to me. I know something else. It will begin all over again. Two hundred thousand dead. Eighty thousand wounded. In nine seconds. These figures are official. It will begin all over again. It will be ten thousand degrees on the earth. Ten thousand suns, they will say. The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. A whole city will be raised from the earth and fall back in ashes…”
The despairing notion that history is forever doomed to repeat itself has been unfortunately borne out by the last century’s seemingly insatiable predilection for atrocity and genocide. The circle that Hiroshima Mon Amour describes closes with an introduction of sorts. The man and woman name each other after their respective traumas: He is Hiroshima and she is Nevers. To name something is supposed by some to give the speaker power over the thing named; this, too, is to be doubted. Never again, the film seems to suggest, gives way to Nevers again. As T.S. Eliot put it in one of the Four Quartets, his series of interlocking poems “including history” (as Ezra Pound defined the epic): “In my end is my beginning.”