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Cult Column: Hiroshima Mon Amour

“Who are you? 

You kill me. 

You do me good.”

Studded with flashbacks and juxtaposition, Alain Resnais’ first feature film is a true piece of avant-garde cinema and remains shocking to this day.

The influence of Hiroshima Mon Amour is undeniable. It is often cited as the first film of The French New Wave – the movement that led to modern day auteurism and allowed a much wider variety of subjects on our screens. It lit a fire that burned to become arthouse cinema and it revolutionised the idea of what a screenplay could be. No longer was it full of instructions to cameramen and paragraphs of speech pasted directly from the literary source. Resnais hired Marguerite Duras, as innovative a writer as he a director, who wrote the screenplay as a conversation, even recording herself reading it for director Resnais, so he could endow her voice in his work.

From the collaboration flourished a film that glides gracefully between two plots that were deemed untellable. In 1959, when the film was released, there was a tendency to diminish the word Hiroshima to be a synonym of the end of the war, forgetting the hundreds of thousands of deaths that the nuclear bomb caused. Hiroshima Mon Amour forces you to see the human tragedy of Hiroshima from the very first scene. Intercut with the intimacy of the romantic couple, the effects are more horrific, especially when “elle” (as the woman and man are never named) tries to romanticise the flowers that sprung up afterwards which are opposed with the most frightful images yet.

“Elle” is a Frenchwoman, in Hiroshima acting the part of a nurse in a film about peace, “lui” is a Japanese businessman. We meet them at the end of their forbidden affair and watch the twenty-four hours before she must leave for France unfold. Soon it is revealed elle was in love once before, with a German soldier during the war. Emmanuelle Riva gives an initially light performance which develops into an eeriness as the film progresses. Eiji Okada’s portrayal of lui is just as impressive, bringing a hidden warmth to the character. Loving the enemy, especially when the war was fresh in the minds of its viewers, was taboo. The film was banned from Cannes due to concerns it would hurt Franco-American diplomacy. Yet, through elle, France learned to sympathise with the women they treated so inhumanely after the war. 

These memories of elle barrage her, attacking her whilst drinking a cocktail or walking through the streets of Japan. The innovative use of flashbacks cut through the dialogue of the present and cuts back so swiftly to give the perfect presentation of a woman besieged by memories. Opposites are yoked: day becomes night, east becomes west, beauty becomes terror. But memory is also painful as we lose the things we don’t want to forget, people that we loved. As hard as we try, they fade, sinking into the river of time.

Critics had never seen such a film before. They called it “caméra-stylo” (camera-pen) as Hiroshima Mon Amour could only be compared to a novel with its depth. Even sized up against auteur films today, that Renais paved the way for, Hiroshima Mon Amour still leaves its murky, inky mark on you, long after you have seen it.

Image courtesy of StudioCanal, provided to The Student as press material.

By Alexa Sambrook

Alexa Sambrook is a second year French and German student. After joining The Student at the start of Semester 2 of her first year, she wrote for the Features and TV and Film section. She was made TV and Film editor in May 2020 and works alongside Aron Rosenthal. She is passionate about building community in the section at this time.