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Hiroshima Mon Amour: French New Wave Classic Flows Back Onto the Screen

Ed Rampell: In the existential mode, Hiroshima Mon Amour asks profound questions: Can love overcome the horrors of war?
Hiroshima Mon Amour

Eiji Okada and Emmanuelle Riva

The late 1950s and early 1960s was a pivotal, heady, historic time for French cinema, as Nouvelle Vague or New Wave classics flowed onto the screen. Whereas Cahiers du Cinema critic and enfant terrible Francois Truffaut’s reviews excoriating the state of France’s motion picture industry had previously literally resulted in his being banned from the Cannes Film Festival, in 1959 filmmaker Truffaut triumphantly returned, winning Cannes’ Best Director and OCIC Awards (as well as an Oscar nom) for his masterpiece The 400 Blows. In 1960 Breathless was released, and its director, Jean-Luc Godard, is widely regarded as the New Wave’s most radical auteur, in terms of film form and leftwing politics. But Alain Resnais -- whose Hiroshima Mon Amour was, like Truffaut’s poignant picture about unhappy boyhood, nominated for Cannes’ 1959 Palme d’Or -- certainly gave Godard a run for his francs, in terms of both the cinematic and the political.

Resnais’ film -- which won the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes bestowed by international film critics -- long unavailable for theatrical screenings, has been restored and is being theatrically re-released in glorious black and white. Hiroshima Mon Amour is a groundbreaking work written with a novelist’s sensibility by Marguerite Duras (who, along with Resnais, scored Cannes’ Film Writers Award). Having been born and raised in Vietnam and Cambodia Duras also enhances this story about what Noel Coward would call a “brief encounter” between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva as Elle) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada plays Lui). Elle is making a pro-peace film on location in postwar Hiroshima and the A-bombed city forms a backdrop to their love affair.

(Riva appeared in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 concentration camp uprising drama Kapo and, at age 85 co-starred with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke’s 2012 Amour. Interestingly, Okada starred in a Japanese film called Hiroshima in 1953 and went on to act opposite Marlon Brando in his 1963 meditation on U.S. imperialism, The Ugly American, and in 1964’s Woman in the Dunes.)

As for Hiroshima Mon Amour’s politics, it was quite daring to make an anti-nuclear film at that time, especially vis-à-vis U.S. audiences. To this day many Americans have an unexamined assumption that nuking Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki, was a vital -- hence justifiable -- factor in ending WWII, a rationale Elle gives voice to. But Resnais and Duras audaciously critique this rationalization (which Olive Stone blew to smithereens in his recent Untold History of the United States documentary series for Showtime) and present the human face of atomic disaster. Viewers should be aware that there are a few gruesome shots that caused this cineaste to avert his eyes from the screen -- but then again, nuclear war is no cotillion ball.

Hiroshima Mon Amour

The nuclear nightmare has left its mark on Lui -- although he was away from Hiroshima, serving overseas as an Imperial soldier, when the Enola Gay dropped its fatal, fateful payload on its civilian target, which included Lui’s family. Just as Elle’s experiences in occupied France during WWII made an enduring, indelible impression upon her. As a teenager she had a doomed romance with a German soldier at Nevers.

The Frenchwoman therefore has sex with men who were both on the opposing side during WWII (as Duras well knew, Japan and France vied over Indochina). Although not explicit by 2014 standards, the sexuality onscreen was bold in terms of 1959’s aesthetics -- at a time when professional virgin Doris Day held sway in Hollywood, it is clear that this interracial couple is engaging in and enjoying sexual intercourse in an artfully shot sensuous sequence.

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Hiroshima Mon Amour

Eiji Okada and Emmanuelle Riva

In the existential mode, Hiroshima Mon Amour asks profound questions: Can love overcome the horrors of war? Sigmund Freud asked which is stronger: Eros (the life force) or Thanatos (the death instinct)? Or, as “Dr.” George Carlin, that consummate master of wordplay, put it: “The person who thought up the slogan, ‘Make Love, Not War’… his job was over that day. He could’ve retired at that moment. If it would’ve been me, I would’ve walked away. So long, I’m goin’ to the beach. You guys work it out.”

Speaking of Freud, Hiroshima Mon Amour is also about the persistence of memory, and how it can rule and even terrorize our lives, long after those traumatizing event s have taken place. Indeed, one could make the point that both characters, especially Elle, suffer from PTSD. The work’s film form, which deploys flashbacks and even flash forwards to a flashback (!), helps express these notions. Resnais continued to experiment with cinematic structure as late as his 2012 You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, made two year before his death in 2014 at the age of 91.

In terms of politics, Resnais’ 1955 nonfiction short Night and Fog deals with Nazi death camps (of course, Resnais’ documentary background informed Hiroshima’s techniques); 1966’s The War is Over is a heartbreaking anti-Franco elegy starring Yves Montand as an underground Spanish Communist, written by the great leftist screenwriter Jorge Semprún; and while Godard shot 1970’s See You at Mao, Resnais made 1974’s Stavisky with Yves Peneau as Leon Trotsky, also scripted by Semprún (who wrote Costa-Gavras’ Z, too).

Hiroshima Mon Amour

In 1959, the N.Y. Herald Tribune predicted Hiroshima Mon Amour “will still be important 50 years hence.” Well, today, as in 1959, this black and white, subtitled movie is not for everyone -- popcorn munchers thirsting for mindless entertainment might want to move on to the next theater in the multiplex. Some 2014 viewers may even find the acting, storyline, etc., to be pretentious, too arty, too intellectual, perhaps even laughable.

But 55 years hence, for serious cinema students interested in fine films and movie history, Alain Resnais’ masterpiece remains essential viewing. In 1961 Truffaut and Godard co-directed the whimsical short A Story of Water, a romance about the flooding of a French village, which in retrospect could be viewed as metaphorical foreshadowing for how the New Wave inundated world cinema. And Hiroshima Mon Amour remains an essential ripple in this marvelous movie movement. So as far as this cinefile and Resnais fan is concerned, he’s impatiently waiting for the restoration (assuming it needs it) and re-release (which it surely needs) of Resnais’ other early Nouvelle Vague Classic, 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad.

Hiroshima Mon Amour opened Oct. 17 in L.A. at the Laemmle Playhouse 7, Royal Theatre and Town Center 5. To find out when it screens at a theater near you see: www.rialtopictures.com/hiroshima.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book" (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).