How does one deal with the film that outed the single most seismic and volcanic cinematic shake-up in the entire history of the medium, the French New Wave? As much as Godard would become the face of the movement one year later, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon Amour was, for many, the first breath of renewed light into the no man’s land of the once-proud French cinematic landscape. It was a film of many firsts. Of course, most obviously, it was the first Western film to seriously grapple with the horrors, both tangible and intangible, of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. But its most important first was much more elemental and, arguably, circumstantial: it was the first movie of what would become the New Wave to devour the international box office, and the first to turn eyes France’s way for the first time in a handful of decades.
Thankfully, Alain Resnais’ provocative thematic extension and revitalization of his short film Night and Fog requires no circumstantial caveats to stand on. Had it been the second, or the tenth, or the hundredth film of the New Wave, it would still boast a bounty of corporeal and cosmic visual and aural sensations that titillate, instigate, suppress, introduce, and chill to the bone in equal measure. Had it only just been unearthed in 2015, over a half-century after its production, it would still feel as singular and as culpable for its own genus. Poised at the intersection of classical, teleological narrative cinema and avant-garde aesthetics, of galvanic neo-realist scruff and highly cultivated, highly curated theatrical craft, of the past and the present, and of the intimate and the ethnographic, Hiroshima is essential cinema for anyone who has never seen a film, or anyone who has seen tens of thousands. For anyone who has ever spent hours pondering about the limits of the possibility of image and motion to convey expression and feeling, or for anyone who has ever, simply, known the pleasure and the impermanence of another human trapped in a mortal coil. Its release year will be forever linked to the film, but, fittingly for a film about the pigmentation of time, it requires no positioning within any cinematic movement to provoke to this day.
In most romances, time is a currency, or an enemy. In Hiroshima mon Amour, it is an enigma. The film unfolds over a short period, within the bounds of a one-night romance between Elle (Emanuelle Riva) and Lui (Eji Okada) as they discuss their time together in a conversation that bleeds together the distinctions of disjuncture and conglomeration Yet it is also a film that, because it is so aware of the limits of time, transcends any nominal period of tangible length and moves into the realm of the intangibles. As much as it is an honest depiction of two people confronting the knowledge that they know nothing about one another and that their space together is receding into oblivion, it is also a study in how their external, individual visages may be merely portals into the hazy temporal masquerade of the past (Lui, for one, is threshed together with the filaments of Elle’s flashing memory of her prior love many years before). As much as Hiroshima is a study in the end of a short time period, it is an excavation of the concept of time itself, a reminder that the time the two had together was, in its fleeting moments, intimately linked to time as it existed before they met, and as it will continue to exist afterward.
The conversation changes locations, but the themes, the words, and sometimes the sensations, repeat – a fact that makes Hiroshima a film-length treatise on Resnais’ favorite pet subject, the persistence of time through the frailties of memory. The final ultimatum of his prior film Night and Fog saw the shattered bones and faceless, impersonal skeletal structures of human remains lashed together underneath the soil of a now superficially clean and empty German countryside where Nazi death camps once stood. The film ended by tacitly undercutting its own existence. After spending a blunt and tactile thirty minutes clenching on to the harsh memories of human destruction, Resnais questioned the mortality of his own film, reminding that, for all he could show us of the Holocaust as fact, even his film could only truly debate with history through the refracting lens of time; it could only truly “know” the mellow breeze of the modern day field, and only feel the autumnal chill of death hanging over that field through the warped specter of time. No documentary, he implied, could ever truly capture the past as it existed, for any moment in time is too molded into the drifting moods and atmospheres of time and memory to exist outside of the passage of time. We can only know history through the fact that we cannot know it as it happened, but only as it is remembered, his film told us.
Hiroshima tackles the same theme, but through disparate and often intentionally conflicting mechanisms. The production, a Japanese and French co-production (itself a harbinger of melding memories and historical wounds), necessitated a political adversity: the film would only be financed if teams in Japan and French, composed of technical experts from each nation, would work in harmony for the finished project. A businesslike reality, perhaps, but Resnais evokes it as possibility in the way he establishes the connections and limits of cohesion in the film. The editing, by a cadre of certified knife experts in Jasmine Chasney, Henri Colpi, and Anne Sarraute, accentuates its own construction, dauntingly superimposing a linear structure over images taken from across disparate locations and time periods. The film feigns linearity, but the images do not necessarily come from the same shooting schedule or even the same cameras. In doing so, the film dares us to confront the construction of linear time – to confront how we construct linear cinematic narratives through distinctly non-linear mechanisms. While watching, we are made to grow aware that the images exist more as a collage of spacial memories across time and space than as a narrative; we are made to connect the construction of cinema with the construction of memory, and the construction of experienced time.
The net effect, as in the famous opening montage of images of life and death, art and kraftwerk, past and present, all nominally capturing the mood of Japan post-bombing, is to remind that time is both a friend and an enemy. Time establishes possibility – it allows us to compartmentalize sounds and images to make sense of their flow from one to the next – but it also curtails our abilities of understand memory and imagination as they exist outside of linear time. The film’s images, which marry the two trends of relentless neo-realist linearity and deliberately abstract anti-linearity, evoke how we can never truly know anything – not a person, not a place, not an essence – through either alone, and how each is clouded with the other.
By clashing styles and production schedules, Resnais is able to interrogate not only the ways that two nations can construct art greater than the limits of either national style, but the ways in which the art, as with all art from any nation or nations, must be prone to disarray and entropy, to chaos and fleeting memory of other fictions come before. In watching, we are trenchantly aware that we cannot but relate Hiroshima through the lens of cinemas, both French and Japanese, to come beforehand, and that cinema is as much a product of human reaction to images in the present as it is a live wire trapeze act of collecting jumbled memories.
What does that image remind me of, the film beckons? Or this image? Do I detect the impressionist milieu of Renoir’s The Grand Illusion in the expression of cultures harmonizing only through tragedy? Or the diorama-like structures and subdivided images-within-images of Ozu in the purposefully mediated and intentionally circumstantial examination of Japanese culture? Is this shot the product of Japanese cinematographer Michio Takahashi studying his Japanese forebearers, or French visualist Sacha Vierny alighting with the full weight of Japanese cinema, trying to recreate its visual stylings through his own French eye? Is this a stepchild of Italian neo-realism or Japanese formalism? A marriage of both, or is that harmony simply a trick of the mind, something we impose on the film from the knowledge that it is about the malleable space between a European and Japanese person and European and Japanese film production teams.
A question that boils down to the ultimate cinematic curiosity: what, in essence, does watching a film mean? Are films but portals into the memories, stored often as half-sensations and reflexes rather than cohesive thoughts, of our own cinematic pasts? Is the construction of cinema a ruse to allow us to connect the lines where films do not, or is that part and parcel with the sly genius of film? Constantly forcing us to debate its own relevance and construction, the majesty of this film is that its subject of subjectivity is expressed in the very subjective architecture of the motion picture itself.
All of this is thoroughly inexhaustible, precisely because the film is a study in the exhausting inexhaustibility of the human mind as it exists in relation to physical space. As we interrogate the contrasts in Resnais’ depiction of Japan – a location both empty and cluttered with confrontation – do we recognize it as “Japan”, as a fictional representation of Japan, as a dreamlike memory of a nation we conjured from prior images? Is it Japan having a nightmare about itself? Confronting a film weaned on both absurdism and naturalism such as this, where accidents of imagery and chaos seem to float next to intentional and carefully planned sequences of order and metronomy, is not easy, which is why Resnais allows it to wash over us almost as a pre-cognitive experience. Hiroshima is not a work one needs to intellectualize, but simply to experience. The senses of time lost and time refound, time imagined and time hoped, all exist as sensory fabric in a delicate tapestry, or an aggressive coil, of images and sounds.
The cheeky pre-mod music over the opening credits, slinky and sinuous by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco, layers over an abstract image of a crack, a picture that might be a ripple in time, a fracture in sanity, a mistake in the concrete we walk on, or the bandaging and healing memories of past conflict still creeping and seeping into the present. It is a void of nothingness and a prismatic, spiderlike web of lines that encompass everything we know. It might mean everything, or, perhaps, it is simply a crack. It is all of these, and none. The image – among the most pregnant ever on the subjectivity of existence – is in the eye of the beholder. Since the very crux of the New Wave was, after all, the constructed, subjective mechanisms by which films and humans relate to other films and humans, what more perfect and fitting an introduction to that movement than a film alive with all of the possibilities the movement would soon fulfill? Temptation beckons to reduce the film’s libidinal romance to the realm of ephemera amidst the toxic aftershock of national crisis, but Resnais invokes this romance and settles in on the sweat-soaked human form to summon a provocation. Rather than a graveyard promenade, the film’s surge of tactile human feeling and flesh-gripping sweat glimpsed in slivers amidst the fractured shards of memory and trauma suggests the battle to reconnect with humanity, a quarrel incarnated formally in the film’s elusive editing rhythms that abstract and stir literal flickers of half-formed human flesh, and human connection, within an aftershock crockpot of disfigured perception.
Resnais made his own film called Guernica, but Hiroshima mon Amour most accurately embodies and extends the duel of disfigured space and scrambled history that mark the ethos of that famous howl of despair and rage from Picasso. But Resnais’ true achievement is his own intervention, evoking Hiroshima’s passage into the seventh art as irreducible to a repurposing of painting or another art form: a sense of truly, perhaps irreparably, disorganized time, a world of memory in disarray and one’s personal connection to the past in a shambles that is dangerously, in the case of one’s feigned personal connection to a past one did not actually experience, being restitched. Hiroshima mon Amour is one of the rare cinematic feats where one detects the birthing pains of a new nomenclature – “The French New Wave” – simply to attempt to wrangle its sheer singularity of vision into a category.