Is “Hiroshima Mon Amour” the first modern movie?
The debut feature by Alain Resnais, who died this past March at 91, turns 55 this year, and its influence is subterranean and vast. One of the first features in what would quickly be dubbed the French New Wave — Claude Chabrol’s “Le Beau Serge” beat it to theaters by a year and Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” came out a week before Resnais’s film — “Hiroshima” arguably marks the first time mainstream movies had aimed explicitly for poetry rather than prose.
With a script written by novelist Marguerite Duras, the film explored interior landscapes of psychology and emotion rather than outward issues of plot. It used voice-overs and flashbacks to establish mood instead of conveying information, and played with history, time, and memory in abstract ways. The film seemed to have not one meaning but many, and for adventurous audiences of the day, it was the first great date-night puzzle movie, perfect for passionate arguments over cups of espresso afterwards.
You can still experience that heady, caffeinated high if you hurry to the Harvard Film Archive, where “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is showing in a splendid new digital print that plays various dates through Dec. 13. Visuals are everything in this movie, which tries to capture the experiences of love and regret, of war and survival, from the inside. The opening shots alone announce a new kind of cinematic consciousness: slowly overlapping black-and-white images of a pair of lovers’ entwined limbs, gilded first with dust, then phosphorescent particles, then the gleam of human sweat. Love is radioactive in this movie, and our pasts follow us even into the oblivion of sex.
She (Emmanuelle Riva) is a French actress in Hiroshima for a film shoot. He (Eiji Okada) is a businessman who lost his entire family when the bomb fell on the city. Both are happily married; both are carried away by a random sexual encounter that keeps revealing new levels of bliss and sorrow. The actress has been cast in an international co-production about the need for peace, the kind of earnest epic Resnais has no interest in making. As others have pointed out, “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is in many ways a war film disguised as a love story. Those opening shots give way to horrific documentary footage of the A-bomb’s aftermath, as the woman insists she “saw Hiroshima” by watching newsreels and touring the museums and the man responds, “You saw nothing.” Even some of the archival footage consists of dramatic recreations made by Japanese filmmakers in the late 1940s. It’s hard to look directly into the sun.
The woman has her own wartime trauma, a young German soldier she loved during the Nazi occupation of the town of Nevers, his death, her madness, exile, and imprisonment in the cellar of her parents’ home. Resnais illustrates these with flashbacks that well up out of the film’s present tense and overcome it. The “you” the actress speaks to in her monologues is as much her dead lover as the man with whom she just spent the night; the river Loire of 14 years ago co-exists with the river Ota of now. Riva — few of whose movies ever made it to American shores until her late-life Oscar nomination for “Amour” (2012) — is really the heart of the movie, and Resnais frames her face in close-ups worthy of the great actresses of the silent cinema. Yet the film wants to push further, past the skin of an actress, past what we can see, to access the way we actually experience, with our inner lives constantly superimposed on outer reality.
The last third of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” takes the approach daringly far, the actress wandering the late-night streets of Hiroshima trailed by the lover who hopes she’ll stay. They dip in and out of tea houses, separate and come back together, flit between past and present, all to a soundtrack of hesitant thoughts and a delicate score by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco. The movie seems to have stopped going anywhere, but it has simply headed inward. When the film was released in the United States in May 1960, the critic for the New York Times found these scenes “slightly bewildering. . . the drama drops into unnecessary romantic vagueness and repetition.” He wasn’t alone.
But that repetition is the point. As Resnais would explore much more deeply in his next work, 1961’s “Last Year at Marienbad” — a film that can really drive audiences crazy — and over the course of a long and rich career, human life is a complex matrix of history, emotion, perception, and nostalgia, which we simultaneously take in and replay in endless permutations, both for ourselves and the people we try to love. There is no art form better suited to replicate this process than the cinema. There was no artist more thoughtful or playful about capturing it than Alain Resnais.