Classic Film Club: 'Hiroshima, Mon Amour'

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. Alain Resnais' 'Hiroshima, Mon Amour'(1959)

‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ was released in the same year as ‘A Bout de Souffle’; both films are alternately credited with kickstarting the French New Wave and, by default, modern filmmaking. But it’s hard to imagine two more divergent pieces of art, with more different intentions. With ‘Breathless’, Godard set out, very self-consciously, to revolutionise and rejuvenate cinema, to consume film history and then regurgitate it, reborn, in his own radical image. Resnais takes equally great creative risks with ‘Hiroshima...’, but his film is about much more than aesthetics, or even politics: this is a film about humanity itself, what it means to experience, and remember, and record our lives.

The plot of the film was hardly new even in 1959: a couple, one foreign and one native, meet in the city of Hiroshima a decade after the bombing. Elle is French, an actress making a ‘film about peace’. Lui is a war veteran and architect, part of the team who are still rebuilding the city from the ashes it was reduced to by the American bomb. They make love in a hotel room, smoke cigarettes, reminisce, learn about each other’s culture and history, visit the set of the film, and eventually go their separate ways, or at least that’s what Resnais leads us to assume: like the initial meeting which we’re informed of but do not see, the lovers’ final parting is never depicted onscreen.

Visually, the film is almost preternaturally perfect: like few others (‘Days of Heaven’, perhaps, or ‘Citizen Kane’) there’s barely a frame here you couldn’t extract, expand and hang on a wall. But the smooth, glassy elegance of the main body of the film is constantly contrasted and undermined by a recurring series of archive news images depicting the aftermath of the atomic blast: the opening sequence, for example, cuts between images of bodies in amorous motion with scenes of pure apocalyptic devastation, suffering and death. Resnais had avoided using images of the holocaust in his celebrated documentary ‘Night and Fog’ for fear of inoculating his viewers against the horror; here, he has no such misgivings. ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ contains some of the most graphic images of human suffering ever committed to celluloid; that they’re real makes the images infinitely more horrifying, that they’re juxtaposed against this tender, poised and pitiful love story makes us question our own reactions to them.

The questions Resnais asks with the film are not new. The issue of how human happiness can exist in the face of such grandiose and inexplicable suffering as the Second World War is examined from several different sides, and never really resolved (can it ever be?). It’s all tied to the film’s major themes – that all memories fade, the good and the bad; that it’s our scars that shape us, but the only way we can keep going is to subsume and forget. The fact that Elle and her countrymen were celebrating the liberation of Paris at the same time Lui’s city was lying in ashes is one aspect of this; the fact that he was forced to kill while she was brutalised and locked in a cellar for fraternising with the enemy is another.

Resnais’s sympathy for his characters only goes so far: they spend a fair amount of the film comparing psychological scars, with Lui clearly convinced of his own ‘superiority’ in that department. And although Elle’s epic recollection of her wartime trauma is clearly a cathartic experience, it’s also a badge of honour that she wears with a survivor’s pride. The fluffy inconsequentiality of her ‘film about peace’ is also subtly satirised, with perhaps a touch of self criticism: Resnais seems all too aware of art’s powerlessness in the face of such widespread atrocity.

‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ is the kind of film that will spark conflicting reactions from different viewers: it’s slow going, and sometimes oppressively artsy. Resnais has been criticised for comparing the destruction of a city with a simple case of human heartbreak, but that’s the most absurdly glib reading of the film possible; nowhere does the film directly equate the two experiences, except as fleeting events that happen, and are eventually forgotten. In a way, the film actually examines what memory is for: if it only causes pain, if it’s unreliable and treacherous, if it’s doomed to fade and fail, then why bother with it?

Author: Tom Huddleston



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