Hiroshima mon amour Review
Hiroshima, 1959. A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) is in town making a film. While there she has an affair with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). Both are married, and know that the relationship will end when she flies back to France and they will likely never see each other again. During the course of a day and a night, she remembers her own tragic, and even more “forbidden”, romance with a German soldier in her home town of Nevers during the war.
Hiroshima mon amour began as a commission for a short documentary about the atomic bomb, but Alain Resnais was concerned that it would in many ways duplicate his earlier film Night and Fog. However, the film developed into Resnais's first fiction feature, made as a French-Japanese coproduction, shot in both countries with local crews.
The screenplay was by Marguerite Duras. Duras was at the time best known as a novelist, whose works were later filmed by Tony Richardson (The Sailor from Gibraltar in 1967) , Jules Dassin (10.30 P.M. Summer, 1966) and Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Lover, 1992). As a novelist, she was associated with the “Nouveau roman” literary movement, an informal group that also included the writer of Resnais's next feature, Last Year at Marienbad. Both Duras and Robbe-Grillet would go on to direct films of their own.
Hiroshima mon amour begins like a documentary, intercutting footage of the couple (none of the characters are given names) in bed, with footage of modern-day Hiroshima and archive material (and some staged footage) concerning the bomb and its aftermath. The woman's narration is interrupted by the man's voice, contradicting what she says, suggesting that she is lying, confused, her memory at fault, or otherwise fallible. The implication is that our understanding of another perspective, of events we were not present at, is necessarily doomed to failure. Much the same is true of the film itself, which sticks to the Frenchwoman's viewpoint throughout. Watch this opening sequence closely, as it introduces symbols that pay off later. The woman draws attention to Japanese women's hair, which falls out overnight; she herself has her head shorn as a punishment for her affair with the German soldier.
The woman's flashbacks to wartime Nevers are at first introduced briefly, jaggedly: as she watches her new lover lying in bed, we see a quick glance of her cradling the body of her German lover. This technique of brief, subjective breaks in chronology was one that Resnais would develop further (see, for example, Muriel) would be very influential on other filmmakers, most obviously Nicolas Roeg, but also Richard Lester (in Petulia, photographed by Roeg) and Sidney Lumet in The Pawnbroker amongst others. Note also Resnais's use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound: the French sequences are silent (except for the narration and the music score) except for one significant scream. Resnais the film buff is also in evidence: notice how the ending plays as a homage to Casablanca - and is set in a bar of that name, just in case you missed the reference. The two central characters are meant to stand in for their respective countries, as the dialogue in the final scene makes clear. For this woman, the history of the war becomes subservient to her two love stories, one past and the other present. Much of this is presumably due to Duras, who grew up in the East and had an affair with an Asian man (the basis of The Lover). We're very much in her head, and Resnais defers to her viewpoint. If any character is eroticised by the camera gaze in this film, it's the Japanese man rather than the Frenchwoman's.
It's easy to see how very modern – and certainly modernist - Hiroshima mon amour seemed on first release. It won a special award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, and Duras received an Oscar nomination for her screenplay. The photography (Sacha Vierny in France, Michio Takahashi in Japan) is also a standout. This a fascinating film, but a cerebral rather than an emotional experience, though your mileage may vary on that score – but it's still one that repays multiple viewings.
Like the simultaneously-released Night and Fog,. Optimum's edition of Hiroshima mon amour is single-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. Previously PG-rated on video and DVD, the film now earns a 12 because of the shots of atomic bomb victims in the opening quarter hour. The scenes of Riva and Okada in bed together – considered quite daring in 1959 and no doubt the major reason for the X certificate the BBFC gave the film then – are now, over fifty years later, so mild as not to be worth commenting upon in the censor's consumer advice.
The DVD transfer is in 1.33:1. That ratio is clearly correct: the film is framed for Academy Ratio. While wider ratios (most often 1.66:1) were being used in Europe by 1959, examples of Academy could still be found, in this case presumably because of the archive footage used. It's Resnais's only feature in this ratio. Optimum give it a very good transfer, with the sharpness and contrast of the Japanese sequences all it should be. (The French sequences are intentionally softer.) There's some minor damage such as scratches, but nothing too distracting.
The soundtrack is the original mono, almost all of it in French (Okada had to learn his lines phonetically), with brief bits of Japanese and, in the final scene, English. No real issues here: it's clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are of the non-optional variety and are white in colour.
There are no extras, which is a pity given that this is a complex film that could benefit from being given some context. Perhaps Optimum could have included Night and Fog an extra on this disc instead of making it a separate release.