Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

hiroshima mon amour 1

Like you I know what it is to forget and yet still be endowed with memory. These are only a couple fragments from this film stitched together but in many ways, they encapsulate the essence of its core themes.

I suppose such words ring true for all of us and Alain Resnais’ film is composed of a plethora of equally perplexing paradoxes that though never quite coming into full clarity nevertheless prove Hiroshima Mon Amour to be one of the most bewitching cinematic expressions born out of the French cinema. Without question, it is an undisputed touchstone of the forthcoming Nouvelle Vague that blew up the conventions of the 1960s.

The first time I ever saw Resnais’ romantic meditation there was something so arresting about it such that I will never forget the likes of Nevers and Hiroshima — the two entities that make up this film as not simply places of past tragedy but crucial to the very identities of the characters who come within the frame.

We never need to know the true names of this French actress (Emanuelle Riva in a riveting performance of immense grace) and the equally candid Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who fall into the throes of a passionate affair together. They are represented well enough by these monikers — symbolic torchbearers of these names — emblematic of the age they ascribed to.

Like L’Eclisse (1961) or Dr. Strangelove (1964), this film too is in the wake of the atomic bomb and any subsequent discussion thereof cinematically speaking must at least acknowledge such films. Part of the necessity in this specific case is how the film takes a particular event and then extends it and intertwines it with so much more in such a way that it not only a monument to Hiroshima but a testament to human history.

We are people so quick to forget. We lose sight of the past. We bury our hurts deep inside. We are doomed to repeat many of our past mistakes. But still, more so we are capable of passions, emotions, and love that carry us through times of tribulation, pain, and suffering. It’s something to be immensely thankful for.

Resnais film is one of the great visual marvels of the 20th century with its graceful fade-outs and flashbacks — delicate camera zooms connecting memories and realities. Stylistically there’s a continuous poetic cadence of image and dialogue, repetitions with recollections. A solemnity exists in its very purposeful pacing that ties everything together with the utmost elegance which, far from being a muddled hodgepodge, forms a perplexing experience never to be fully elucidated.

It has very few equals and remains so as an achievement that can hardly be defined as a typical love story or any such blase categorization. It’s what we might conceive when we think of Film as art worthy of any sphere of discussion.

There’s hardly a meter to begin measuring how it makes us feel or the emotions it elicits.  Somehow connected to fate — two lovers crossing paths — these two individuals seemingly meant to be together and tied together not only by their romantic passion but their own histories. The striking flashback structure subsequently creates tiny microcosms of emotional resonance that flood with abandon.

Recollections of past scars unearthed over the course of the love affair. Both historical and personal. We have the depiction of the devastation in the aftermath of the bomb with images that are all but scorched into our mind’s eye with an unfettered pointedness. We are meant to see these images and take into account how they came into being.

But there’s also the personal trauma brought to the fore and exhumed with a kind of transfixing equanimity that’s hard to fully comprehend but nevertheless leaves us with something to ruminate over. Equally telling is the passage of time as memories begin to fade and minds begin to slowly forget. Again, that is the curse of our beings that we must fight to remember what has come before.

It’s no small coincidence that the cafe that our two lovers rendezvous at is none other than the Casablanca. The yearning and the melancholy are right there in the lyric of “As Time Goes By.” If you’ve never consciously thought about their meaning before then Resnais film might make you hear them anew and be moved.  Love, memory, and heartbreak are often so closely tied together. This is a film that dwells on each and finds some amount of catharsis.

The diversity of the crew is another glimmering bright spot of this joint partnership between nations with an abundance of involvement from both French and Japanese staff taking the shoot on-location to both countries. It’s a lovely marriage and a bond is formed by the picture just as the romance signals a tight-knit cross-cultural relationship on screen.

For some, individuals somewhat attuned to diverse backgrounds, Hiroshima Mon Amour is utterly groundbreaking in this realm. Though its cast is small, it’s a mighty statement having a French woman playing opposite a Japanese man. 50 years on it remains as an image that we do not see all that often, despite the changing of the tides.

Their closeness is palpable. Hands clasping tenderly. Eyes gazing with the deepest longing. The intimacy that they share speaks volumes. Even as it’s undercut by the morose strains of infidelity and wistfulness; this is a love story like few others.

4.5/5 Stars




The Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

lastmarienbad1As I’ve grown older and, dare I say, more mature, I like to think that I’ve gained a greater appreciation for those moments when I don’t understand, can’t comprehend, and am generally ignorant. Now I am less apt to want to beat myself up and more likely to marvel and try and learn something anew. Thus, Marienbad is not so much maddening as it is fascinating. True, it is a gaudy enigma in form and meaning, but it’s elaborate ornamentation and facades easily elicit awe like a grandiose cathedral or Renaissance painting from one of the masters. It’s a piece of modern art from French director Alain Resnais and it functions rather like a mind palace of memories–a labyrinth of hollowness.

There are figures existing in a defined mise-en-scene without voices or at the most backed by puzzling voice-overs. Almost behaving like specters at times against this backdrop of baroque ornateness. Still, the loose narrative, following a solitary man and aloof woman he’s convinced he met only the year before, is firmly planted in the worlds of architecture, sculpture, and painting in so many ways overlapping and coinciding with this cinematic creation of the moving image. In fact, there is the juxtaposition of images, two figures in the bar, low light only to be contrasted with the gaiety of a girl bathed in sunlight within a bedroom. Later it is followed by a rapid repetition of shots of that same woman.

There’s immense power here, because there is no tie to any narrative strand, allowing complete freedom to go any direction it may so choose. There’s the ambiguity between fantasy, reality, truth, and fiction, all the while backed by the wailing organ music that becomes almost exhausting with its persistence. The camera is constantly tracking, the “story” shifting between time and place with ease.

It’s art at its most unadulterated and audacious, although it does admittedly lack a general geniality or heart. Its predecessor Hiroshima Mon Amour feels imminently more personal and intimate, compared to this truly somber affair. It’s not quite so stiff and stuffy, but Marienbad is still masterclass in other ways.

lastmarienbad2In fact, although this film was shot on estates in and around Munich, I have been on palace grounds similar to the film. There’s something magnificent about the sprawling wide open spaces and immaculate landscaping. But still, that can so easily give way to this sense of isolation, since it becomes so obvious that you are next to nothing in this vast expanse. Marienbad conveys that beauty so exquisitely, while also paradoxically denoting a certain detachment therein.

With some films, it becomes hard to decipher fantasy and reality but there usually is at least some initial dividing line before distinctions get fuzzy. That often holds true for the works of Bergman or Fellini. However, here such a dichotomy seems of little consequence. Instead, images become fascinating, architecture is to be examined, and there is hardly a need to know everything. As an audience that frees us up to be mesmerized and truly entranced by what we are being met with.

lastmarienbad3Do we understand this bit of interaction at this stately chateau? Probably not. In fact, I’m not sure if we are meant to know the particulars about last year in Marienbad. That doesn’t mean we still can’t enjoy it for what it is. Because Alain Resnais is perennially a fascinating director and he continued to be for many years. Whether you think this is a masterpiece or a piece of rubbish at least give it the courtesy and respect it is due. Then you can pass judgment on it, whatever it may be.

I for one am still mesmerized by that mathematical strategy games, but that’s only the half of it. When it is all and said and done, I have no cogent, well-informed answer. The most striking thing that stayed with me is how Last Marienbad is rather like strolling through a gallery of art. Each framed image acting as its own distinct entity, crossing mediums and really engaging with the viewer. While I am all for Film as a purely visceral form of entertainment, there’s seems to be a necessity for such visionary pieces as Resnais’ work here with screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet. What they did is extraordinarily remarkable. That’s the best I can do. You need to see it for yourself.

4.5/5 Stars

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

72bd9-hiroshima_mon_amour_1959This film is not only a seemingly early form of the French New Wave, it also has many qualities of a documentary, and it is certainly an international film. The film opens with a one night stand between a French actress and a Japanese architect who rendezvous one night in Hiroshima. In the short time they spend together, she reflects on her memories of the city that was not too long ago devastated by the atomic bomb. He often rejects her recollections but nevertheless, he cannot bear for her to leave and he continues to pursue her. Eventually in the course of their time together she relates her days back in the town of Nevers in France. During the occupation, she had a beau who was German and was eventually killed. The events and aftermath haunted her even many years later. They spend some of their time together walking the streets of Hiroshima and with their time running out they vow to remember each other by Hiroshima and Nevers respectively because their real names are never mentioned. This film begins very much like a documentary on Hiroshima but very quickly it turns into a character study focusing on ideas of love, memory, and personal identity. This film is more about art and expression and it uses quick flashbacks to replicate the past with voice-overs bringing the audience back to the present. That being said it should be treated as such because it truly is a masterpiece from Alain Resnais.

4.5/5 Stars