"Hiroshima Mon Amour" (1959), Alain Resnais' debut feature length project is a baffling film, one that is extremely difficult to even summarize in a synopsis!
We are (almost) introduced to two characters in a passionate clinch, their faces not shown, conversing with one another, although it is mostly a one-sided conversation. The woman keeps saying things about knowing, and seeing Hiroshima closely, while the man keeps interjecting and contradicting her. She insists that she has seen and remembers a lot about Hiroshima but he contradicts her again saying that she is "not endowed with memory"! The conversation happens against a strange background score, and shocking visuals, some of which is part of actual documentary footage of the irreparable damage done to human life and property during the tragic Hiroshima bombings of 1945. The woman continues to talk; although at this point of time we aren’t sure exactly which year it is set in, whether during the war or much after it!
The camera glides across corridors of hospitals, bombing sites, showcasing bodies of dead and deformed children, further moving into the homes of survivors who are rendered only half humans, losing hair rapidly, yet trying their best to survive despite being crippled and deformed for life! The visuals of the grisly aftermath keep getting displayed, as almost impassive voiceovers continue to narrate away for the first few minutes.
Soon we cut away from the nightmare-like tone of the initial few minutes and are shown the faces of the conversing couple. A French woman and a Japanese man have just spent the night together. The woman, an actress who hails from Nevers, France, is in Hiroshima to shoot for some scenes in a film she is starring in, while the Japanese man is an architect.
Believe it or not, the rest of the film is like one lengthy conversation with repeated ramblings, sometimes deadpan, sometimes over-emotional, between these two individuals who, after making love one night, find that they are madly in love with each other! Some of the conversation seems random and meaningless, some quite forlorn, while most of it sheds light on the dark past of the woman, particularly revolving around her failed romance.
It is from this vague conversation that one can try and draw some inference as to the central idea of the film. Only on a broad level, it is safe to say, that juxtaposed against the tragedy at Hiroshima, a prominent theme in the film is that of undying love; the loss of loved one(s), and most importantly the memory of such love (or tragedy) that continues to haunt an individual.
In one bizarre scene, the lengthiest, perhaps, shot in a bar, the woman, who appears to be a rather fragile, emotionally wounded individual, has a few hours left with the man, before she returns to France. She reminisces in a drunken state, about her first love affair with a German soldier, who got killed. Only we aren’t really sure if it’s a dream she is narrating or a past, for she seems to be talking in present tense. There are a lot of flashback scenes interspersed, disturbing ones at that, describing how she was punished by confinement to a cellar and having her head shaved off! The woman gets hysterical, cries out loud, gets slapped by the man, then calms down again, constantly narrating the events, referring to the Japanese man as part of the story, although it is actually about the German soldier! During the time he keeps pouring drinks for her and listening to her story, the Japanese man keeps reiterating how much he is in love with her and would like to be with her!
It’s all befuddling but you do find yourself giving in to the strange but strikingly original narrative. There’s this soul-stirring background music score, top-notch cinematography, a partially great atmosphere, moody story-telling style, and the use of quick flash backs (a strong influence of the French New Wave). The acting is superlative all the way, by the two leads, most especially Emmanuelle Riva for her spellbinding performance, considering the camera mostly captures every expression on her face for a long time. And finally, there’s a sheer uniqueness about "Hiroshima Mon Amour" that makes it a film that deserves great admiration.
Only this this film is no "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961), that stupendous surrealist dreamscape of a film that Resnais followed this up with, and made use of some of the devices used in "Hiroshima Mon Amour" to a significantly greater effect.
Despite a well-written screenplay by Marguerite Duras, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, nevertheless, oscillates between extremely surreal on one hand to extremely documentary-like real on the other, which lets it down slightly. It would've perhaps benefited more, had there been some consistency in its mood. Moreover, it certainly seems a tad long and repetitive even for its modest 90 min length and could've actually been much more accessible if cut short by at least 15 minutes.
Remarkable though; an essential film outing.