Sunday, August 06, 2006

Film Review: "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" (1959)

On this, the 61st anniversary of the US's use of the atomic bomb against Japan at Hiroshima, it seems only appropriate to offer a review of Alain Resnais's "Hiroshima, Mon Amour."

Resnais's work is nothing short of a complete masterpiece of storytelling and dealing with complex issues of memory, the post-atomic world, forbidden loves, the cyclical nature of violence, and the manipulation of time.

"Hiroshima, Mon Amour" follows the brief affair of a French actress with a Japanese man who also fought in World War II. Together, they explore the notions of love and memory, and their function together. On top of this, Resnais juxtoposes the location of Hiroshima as a means for both the woman and the man (who remain nameless until the climax of the film, when there is a devastating and powerful revelation of the nature of identity for both of them) to deal with their respective pasts in World War II and to try to make sense of love.

In terms of technique, Resnais picks up on his work from "Night and Fog", completely manipulating time, making his film a truly revolutionary film. In a day and age where we've grown use to completely non-linear narratives (films like "Memento" and "Pulp Fiction" being prime recent examples), Resnais's narrative style doesn't strike us as quite so remarkable. However, it has to be one of the first films that disobeys any sense of linearity with its images whatsoever - he doesn't simply manipulate time the way the flashbacks of, say, "Citizen Kane" did - he completley obliterates such linearity, and we bounce back from Hiroshima circa 1959, Hiroshima in 1945, and France in the 1939-1945 period at will. Additionally, his juxtaposition of a love affair on top of the horrors of war (we hear pledges of love even while we see images taken from 1945 showing the effects of the bomb on the survivors of Hiroshima) is remarkable, revealing the need for human contact and emotion between two people in the proverbial world gone mad.

However, ultimately, it is not the technique that is most impressive, but the themes which Resnais deals with, particularly in the opening montage of 20 minutes or so, but continuing throughout the film. These scenes deal deftly with the nature of memory and violence and love in ways few other films do. For example, again following his work on "Night and Fog," Resnais continues the theme of the cyclical nature of violence, with the woman saying, over images of saplings growing in Hiroshima, that "It will happen again. 200,000 dead and 80,000 wounded in nine seconds."

Just as remarkable, and perhaps in some way as germane (if not moreso) to many societies today is the role of memory. "She" and "he" bounce back and forth in a dialog of remembering throughout the film, discussing the nature not just of memory, but of the past receding in one's mind as well. The importance of memory to making sense of one's past and one's identity is a central theme to the film, and one that remains relevant politically and socially as well. At the beginning, she asks, "Why deny the obvious necessity of remembering?", and with this question, we cannot help but think of the cases of atrocities committed in the world in the post-Hiroshima age, from the military dictatorships of Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, to the open genocide towards indigenous peoples in Guatemala, to the persecution against Muslims in the Balkans to the civil wars and genocide raging in Africa even now.

The other major feat of Resnais's work is the ways it deals with issues of what reality is, what perceptioni and experience are, and how those so-called experiences not only help us define who we are as individuals, but who we are to others, as well, ultimately leading up to the films damning conclusion. In this regard, Resnais's work actually reminds me of the works of one of my favorite authors, Philip K. Dick, for we know we are only experiencing the story through one side, and that identity is being constructed through memory, resulting in a "reality" that we are not always sure is the only reality.

Outside of Resnais's performance as a director in this film, particular credit is due to Emmanuelle Rivas, who turns in an amazing performance. Although the story does revolve around the relationship between her and Eiji Okada's "him," it is really a story about Rivas, focusing on her past, and she gives an amazing depth to the performance.

Many people outside of Japan will not even stop and remember that the US used the first atomic bomb against other humans today, or see it in the paper and say, "oh, yeah." Ultimately, as the bomb fades into our past, too, becoming just another cold part of a cold narrative, Resnais's film becomes even more important, for not only dealing with issues of love and war, but for reminding us just how important memory is, even as the collective mass lets things recede.