Top Fifty Films of the Fifties — Number Forty-One

#41 — Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
History doesn’t slow down, and it doesn’t pause to give affected observers time to process what has happened. Sometimes art has to rush to keep up. In the process, it can unearth raw, troubling truths, both through what it directly, intentionally conveys and through what is revealed by its process. Hiroshima Mon Amour, the debut feature of French director Alain Resnais, was released less than fifteen years after the United States capped off World War II by dropping nuclear weapons on Japan, including the title city. That’s hardly an ink-still-wet sort of timespan, but it is fresh enough that the scorched shadows of the incident still creep into the film. Watched now, all these decades later, the film is as much an artifact as any old, scratchy radio broadcast replayed to capture a distant time. But the sense of reverberating memory is infused deeply into it, giving it an artful timelessness that plays like modernity. It’s not a film made staid by reflection. It is of the immediate moment, struggling with the echoes of the unthinkable.

Resnais was initially approached to make a documentary, in large part because of admiration over his documentary shorts, notably Cannes sensation Night and Fog. That was about the Nazi concentration camps, which surely led to the suspicion that he could craft something equally powerful about the aftermath of atomic weaponry unleashed. The director couldn’t find his way to documentary, eventually opting for understanding through fiction. Working with a screenplay credited to the novelist and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, Resnais leans on the sturdiest story there is, that of a love affair. But he also approaches it through abstraction, identifying the lead characters as only She and He (Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada, respectively). Resnais is equally elusive about the particulars of their story, revealing only reflections of their shared and individual truths. The film is not about the details of how they do and don’t connect, but the emotions that inform their experience. Through that approach, Resnais is able to comment on the fragility of connection in a world that’s literally been damaged.

Further, Hiroshima Mon Amour suggests the inherent inability of film to carry real truths, one of the foundational notions of the then-emerging French New Wave. Resnais rejected his inclusion in the movement, but his debut isn’t drastically apart from what his peers were up to, casually deconstructing narrative cinema through a cool mastery of its techniques. The opening of the film is a dialogue between She and He that, among other things, considers the unfathomable ravages of war, all of it delivered as voiceover atop footage of the destruction the bombing wrought. The philosophical musings against the black-and-white reality stretch on for around 15 minutes, upending all expectations about how a film should engage and then proceed. Then there’s the vocation of She. The character is an actress who has come to Japan to shoot a movie, one that evidently also deals with the war, albeit in a manner that seems far more melodramatic in the brief glimpse of it. Resnais underlines his fiction by embedding a starker version of cinematic falsehood within it, which seems like code and confession. Or maybe it’s an open acknowledgment of the ongoing struggle to make meaning through creation, even when–or especially when–a worthwhile underlying purpose to humanity’s self-destructive savagery is utterly inscrutable. That is one of art’s tasks, after all, and it’s rarely more vital than when life is still slowly quivering back toward stasis after devastation that must be examined.

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