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Out of Darkness Into Light with Alain Resnais (1922-2014), the Poet Laureate of Memory

dvd revHiroshima is a film about which you can say everything.

—Eric Rohmer

Coming out of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) into a sunny summer day in Manhattan, still deep in the film, you look over at your best friend. It’s one of those essential check points of a relationship. Have we connected? Did the movie do to you what it did to me?

Your friend is frowning. Wherever you were, he was somewhere else. While you were fascinated, he was squirming and groaning (you wouldn’t have noticed, you were so locked in). You can think of more than one relationship that came unravelled after a difference of opinion about a movie. Not to worry. You and he have passed plenty of check points and moments of truth and you move through this one without a hitch.

A Resnais Moment

The memory of that first college-age viewing of Hiroshima mon amour was still potent, still so much a part of my life in film, that when I learned of the death of Alain Resnais ten days ago, I felt something like the conflicted uneasiness of that moment walking out of the theater realizing that instead of sharing a special experience, my friend and I had seen a different movie. I also felt the way I had sitting cluelessly through Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which left me feeling as disoriented as I did on March 2, Oscar night, when I saw his name appear during the In Memoriam segment of the telecast. For a second I was thinking that he’d died earlier in the year, otherwise wouldn’t I have seen the story in the papers sometime before the Academy’s formal roll call of the dead? Maybe I’d been out of town, away from the internet and the New York Times. How else could I have missed it? Or was my failure to remember the death of the cinema’s poet laureate of memory a sign of creeping dementia? Appearing out of sequence, seemingly after the fact, the next morning’s Times obit with its reference to the “nonlinear” narratives of the “acclaimed filmmaker who defied convention” created further confusion; it was as if the director’s reputation for subverting time had subverted the presentation of his own death. And what a story — the most elusive and enigmatic of filmmakers dying on the eve of the film industry’s signature event. Any way you looked at it the news of his passing had become, itself, a Resnais moment.

Taken In

When you walk into a film with Hiroshima in the title, whatever the other words are, there’s no escaping the magnitude of the context, as the voice of Emmanuelle Riva intones, “Two hundred thousand dead. Eighty thousand wounded. In nine seconds.” Abbreviating the title in a discussion of the film inevitably underscores the catastrophe. Yet the grisly images of the aftermath occupy only a half a dozen of the film’s 90 minutes or about half of the 15 minutes preceding the love affair at the center of the film. If this had been a short documentary — as originally planned — Resnais might have produced something comparable to Night and Fog, his then-and-now 1955 film on the Nazi death camps. Instead, he and novelist Marguerite Duras joined forces to create a seductive, profoundly suggestive work.

The instant the title and credits appear, a subtle, sinister music is probing at you with the piping of a single note, alien, eerie, both surreal and intimate, as if the film were already reading your mind, scanning your susceptibilities; when the sound of a piano enters in atonal freefall, the effect is otherworldly. The credits are superimposed on a scarred landscape, a ragged stitch leading into a nexus of agitated lines indicating the center of the explosion, ground zero.

The actual opening image resembles a landscape formed of human flesh, two torsos striving together, sprinkled with glittering dust, a signifier of atomic ash, radiation, fallout. Faceless human forms seen at close range, neither one clearly male or female, appear dehumanized, fragmented, the opposite of erotic, until you see the woman’s hands moving over the man’s back as she recites a toneless, unnatural, oddly inflected narration to accompany the horrific images of the explosion’s human toll. Driven by a score that ranges from somber melodic intervals to jaunty, quasi ragtime dance music,  the sequence is a counterpoint of sight and sound, the female voice dominant (“I saw everything …. I saw the hospital … the museum … the anonymous masses of hair”), the male voice confined to a monotone chorus of denial (“You saw nothing in Hiroshima”).

The fugue-like opening ends abruptly when the camera finally reveals Emmannuelle Riva’s lovely face smiling up at us and at the man (Eiji Okada) as she says, playfully, naturally, romantically, a long way from the spaced-out narration, “You!” They both then laugh, and from that point the conversation follows the obvious conventions of the situation. She asks if he’s “all Japanese” (perhaps because he has, as Duras’s screenplay suggests, “a fairly Western face”) and he tells her she’s “like a thousand women in one.” If you were to begin the film at this moment, without the hypnotic prelude, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a cliched inter-racial love story with a provocative background.

Excluded at Cannes

Hiroshima mon amour was excluded from the official selection process at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival to appease the U.S. government, according to online sources. It seems that some 15 years after Hiroshima, the bomb was still “a taboo subject.” The Special Jury Prize that year went to a forgotten film by a forgotten director, Konrad Wolf’s Star (Sterne), which was about a Nazi officer who falls in love with a Jewish girl while escorting prisoners to a concentration camp. Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows opened the festival, where its young star, Jean Pierre-Leaud, was cheered. Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or.

By July of 1959 Resnais’s film was deemed worthy of a round-table discussion in Cahiers du Cinema that included directors Eric Rohmer, Jean Luc Godard, and Jacques Rivette. During the dialogue, Rohmer speculated that “in ten, twenty, or thirty years, we shall know whether Hiroshima was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema, or whether it was possibly less important than we thought.” In 2002 the international contributors to the 50th anniversary issue of Positif, another French film journal, answered the speculation by naming Hiroshima mon amour one of the top ten films produced between the years 1952-2002.

Enter Duras

The way Resnais tells it in an interview included on the Criterion Special Edition DVD, he’d been assigned to make a film on the atomic bomb. In the beginning no one was ready to touch so daunting a subject (Resnais notes with obvious amusement that Françoise Sagan was among the writers approached); the subject was considered “unfilmable.” Finally, Duras, a writer whose work Resnais admired, was enlisted. Working closely with Resnais, she produced a finished script in two months. According to Kent Jones’s essay accompanying the DVD, D.W. Griffth’s Intolerance was the model Resnais and Duras had in mind: the idea, as Resnais puts it, of “working in two tenses,” the present and the past, but “the past shouldn’t be in flashback.” The possibility that everything Riva tells her Japanese lover — the story of her affair with a German soldier in France during the Occupation, his death, her despair, and her humiliation at the hands of the townspeople of Nevers — might be a fiction was a potential “ambiguity” that Resnais admits finding formally “interesting.”

Emmanuelle Riva’s performance in Hiroshima mon amour stood out even at a time when female characters of range and depth were being played by actresses like Jeanne Moreau, Monica Vitti, and Stephane Audran, among others. In the July 1959 Cahier du cinema discussion, Jacques Rivette describes Riva’s character: “She doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t analyze herself …. [she’s] a woman who no longer knows where she stands, who no longer knows who she is, who tries desperately to redefine herself in relation to Hiroshima, in relation to the Japanese man …. In the end she is a woman who is starting all over again, going right back to the beginning … as if she were once more unformed matter in the process of being born.” Rivette goes on to say, “In the same way that Hiroshima had to be rebuilt after atomic destruction,” she “is going to try to reconstruct her reality,” which she can achieve only through “what she herself has discovered at Hiroshima and what she has experienced in the past at Nevers.”

While Riva’s character is tormented and nearly undone by what happened at Hiroshima, it also holds an element of fascination for her, to be acting in a film “about peace” at the site of the unthinkable event while making love to a man who grew up there. The handsome Japanese architect is her audience and her accompanist, and though she may truly be “a thousand women in one” to him, what he finds most exciting and gratifying is not so much the story of forbidden young love and punishment in Nevers but the fact that she has never told it to anyone else. When she admits as much, he reacts like a delighted child, hugging her, exclaiming “I’m the only one who knows!”

If you substitute “understands” for “knows,” the man’s enthusiasm could be translated to express the enthusiasm felt by those who were so intensely engaged by the challenge of the film that they felt that he was directing it for them alone. All these years later I’m still in touch with my friend, by the way. He remembers our difference of opinion and promises to tell me one day what that was all about. So here we are, another enigma wrapped in another mystery. Another Resnais moment.

 

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