“I’ll remember you as a symbol of love’s forgetfulness.”
Despite being made in the year 1959, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour is a bold film that still feels fresh and timeless and has a powerful resonance even to this day. Replete with striking imagery and poetic dialogues, Resnais’ outstanding debut is an overwhelmingly hypnotic and one-of-a-kind audio-visual experience that isn’t bound by the restraints of conventional storytelling techniques. It’s hard to think of any other film that has beautifully juxtaposed two extremely opposite themes – war and love – in such an arresting manner. The subject of memory and its relationship with time is a recurring theme in many of his films. People have come up with several interpretations and each one is as interesting as the other. In this piece, I present my brief thoughts on the film and not a lengthy analysis.
Resnais’ original idea was to do a documentary on Hiroshima but it was novelist Marguerite Duras who suggested that he do a fictional film – a love story – set in Hiroshima. Its focus is on two primary characters: A handsome Japanese architect (played by Eiji Okada) and a French actress (played by a captivating Emmanuelle Riva). The film begins with an artistic sequence of these two locked in an intimate embrace, with their bodies covered in the ashes of war. These ashes are soon replaced by glistening sweat droplets. This is then followed by a beautifully edited montage of documentary footage of the horrible aftermath of the war. We see images of burnt and disfigured bodies, destroyed buildings and streets etc. all played out with the voiceovers of Riva and Okada in the background. “You saw nothing in Hiroshima”, he tells her repeatedly and she insists that she did. She is in Japan to make a film about peace and will be staying here only for a very short time. They are having a one-night stand.
We slowly learn that they both are married. She tells him that she will soon fly to Paris. The Japanese man is deeply upset at this thought. He doesn’t want her to leave and pleads her to stay with him for a week or three days. He feels a strong connection with her that he never felt with any other woman. She reluctantly makes up her mind to spend on last night with him during which she recounts her tragic love affair with a German officer during the war. She hasn’t told this to anyone else but him. The flashbacks revealed to us run parallel to the sequences that take place in the present. The German officer was her first love and he was killed by someone. She was then ostracized by her family members for indulging in an affair with the enemy and locked in a cellar for so many days. She seems perpetually stuck in this past and this is why she is unable to carry on with her romance with the Japanese man. There is a striking comparison made here between Hiroshima and the woman’s tragic love story.
The pain she felt in the past – and one that she still feels – is equivalent to the shattering devastation the city of Hiroshima has experienced during the war. The city can’t let go of its horrible past and she can’t let go of hers. By narrating her story to her Japanese lover and spending more time with him, her pain is amplified. But during one moment, she tells him that in recounting, she is beginning to forget him and that is even more painful, despite her remembering the details of all that had happened. We can never forget our past but in order to move forward, we have to make peace with it. This is a conundrum that we all experience at one time or the other. We want to forget something but at the same time, we want to remember it. Instead of presenting all this in a linear format, Resnais used what he called “shattered time”. This, according to him, is not exactly what we call “non-linear”. The film is a modernist masterpiece that has been lavishly praised by many of the filmmakers of the French New Wave like Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and Chabrol.