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Watching ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ after ‘Oppenheimer’

Alain Resnais' ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ is still seductive and hard to pin down after all these years

Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada in 'Hiroshima Mon Amour'
Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada in 'Hiroshima Mon Amour'

“These things are hard on your heart.” Seconds before the “Trinity” nuclear test, its architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer, utters these haunting words. It’s a pivotal moment in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, even though it’s not readily clear what the director of the Manhattan Project is referring to. The unbearable tension of the test? The pre-emptive guilt of dropping an atomic bomb? Or does he choose this moment to think of the woman he loved and let down, whose shadow looms over the film?

It’s one of the few lines in Oppenheimer that could have been from another, very different film about the shadow of the atomic bomb. This is Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, a 1959 film that also has a sad, sensual affair at its heart. It was a co-production: French and Japanese studios produced the film. It was decided that one of the central characters would be French, the other Japanese; Eiji Okada, who didn’t speak French but was willing to learn, and Emmanuelle Riva were cast. The camerapersons were Sacha Vierny, who had shot Resnais’ acclaimed 1956 concentration camp documentary, Night And Fog, and Michio Takahashi. 

Also read: ‘Oppenheimer’ review: The fragility of an atomic bomb

It has one of the most charged beginnings in cinema history. Giovanni Fusco’s cerebral ostinato theme plays over the opening credits. Then we see two intertwined bodies, in a series of close-ups. Sand (or could it be radioactive ash?) falls on them. We don’t see the faces, only fragments of bodies, glistening with sweat. Then a man’s voice is heard on the soundtrack. “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” A woman counters: “I saw everything. Everything.”

It’s telling that Hiroshima Mon Amour starts with both repetition and contradiction. Through the film, the unnamed couple speak in epigrams, often circling back to previous statements and contradicting each other or themselves. “You’re destroying me. You’re good for me…. I waited for you calmly, with boundless impatience,” the woman says. Much of the script, by novelist Marguerite Duras and Resnais, is spoken by Riva in voice-over, in a hushed, dream-like tone (the director wanted an “incantatory” quality). It’s worth remembering that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot was five years old then, its unsettling, fragmented dialogue still a recent revelation. As in the play, Resnais’ woman can’t seem to leave Hiroshima, even though she keeps saying she wants to. A bar called Casablanca reinforces the idea: Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film is, after all, about a place where different races meet and can’t get out of (both films also have flashbacks to a pivotal episode in France). 

There’s more Beckett in Hiroshima Mon Amour than may seem likely at first. When she recounts her doomed affair with a German soldier in Nevers in occupied France, the woman addresses her old lover as “you”, though she’s talking to her Japanese lover. It’s almost like she’s watching a film of her younger days (the impetus may have been practical, but having different cinematographers work on the French and Japanese portions deepens this impression). In Samuel Beckett And Cinema, Anthony Paraskeva writes about the film and Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape (1958): “Divided voice and image, or speech and gesture, creates in Krapp, as it does in Hiroshima, an effect of split consciousness which allows the protagonist to watch and listen to themselves, or versions of themselves, as though they were someone else.”

The basic plot in Hiroshima Mon Amour is as simple as Oppenheimer’s is complicated: A married Frenchwoman has an affair with a married Japanese man while shooting an anti-war film in Hiroshima. Over the course of two days, they meet, part, meet up again, and she tells him about her past. Yet, the film itself is a tangle of overlapping memories and incomplete narrations, the past bleeding into the present. Even the past is divided between the woman’s actual past and the one she feels she lived in Hiroshima—a hospital with deformed victims, a museum dedicated to the attacks—though the latter is probably impressions gathered from films (“I saw the newsreels. I saw them. Of the first day, the second day, the third day”). Accompanying her voice-over, Resnais uses images from Japanese films about the bomb, edited skilfully so they blend into Takahashi’s work. 

Oppenheimer’s success has brought with it debate about the responsibilities of a film on the bomb—whether it should have included Japanese “voices” or shown the actual attacks. I think it’s more provocative for Nolan to have made a film from Oppenheimer’s perspective, one that shows him and other scientists discussing the bomb almost as an abstraction, and which crackles with the seductive beauty of nuclear science. Resnais’ film has its own provocations. Watching Hiroshima Mon Amour even as I was still thinking about Oppenheimer made me wonder how audiences today might feel about a film in which a white foreigner appears to make Hiroshima “about herself” (“…the beginning of an unknown fear for us as well. And then indifference. And fear of indifference as well.”) She’s calmly contradicted by her lover but has the last word when she calls him Hiroshima, thus giving the film its title. I can’t imagine a comparable scene in a European film with a lover being called “Auschwitz”. 

Resnais’ film is ultimately less about the bomb than it is about living in the post-Hiroshima world, where nuclear war is not only possible but likely and all survival comes with a certain amount of guilt. The words “remember” and “forget” recur through the film. “I’ll think of this story as of the horror of forgetting,” the woman says about her time in Nevers. And later, to the Japanese man: “I’ll forget you. I’m forgetting you already! Look how I’m forgetting you!” For Oppenheimer, there is no forgetting. Nolan’s film ends with him convinced that he has started something that can’t be stopped. Duras’ words  are just as ominous. “It will begin again.”

Also read: Outside the Frame: Davy Chou on ‘Return to Seoul’

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