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Hiroshima Mon Amour
A discussion of memory and place in the film by Alain Resnais
by Katherine Enos

The first frames reveal an abstraction of body-parts. As the subtle intonation of Fusco's composition moves immplacably forward, so too there is a slight shifting of the bodies contained within the frame, this shift signifying the tension and duration of embrace, the enounter of lovers. The skin is altered with the duration and heat of embrace, its porous surface glistens with the clinging beads of sweat. In these opening moments of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Director Alain Resnais and Scriptwriter Marguerite Duras introduce a theme running the length of the film, that of transformation.

1. Barnouw, Erik, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, 1983. New York: Oxford University Press, p.140.
In 1958, Resnais received a commission to film a documentary on Hiroshima. No doubt the awarding of this commission was in part because of his adept documentation of the Nazi death camps in Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) (1955), a film asserted by Erik Barnouw to be the most "admired"1 film on war horrors.

Within a few months of beginning work on what would become Hiroshima, Mon Amour, however, Resnais found himself stymied. According to critic James Monaco, this difficulty stemmed from Resnais' discovery that the two events — the bombing of Hiroshim and Nagasaki, and the phenomenon of the Nazi death camps — were perceptually similar. Each was an expression of human memory, death, and the knowledge of an unimaginable and unjustifiable suffering. Each was about the destruction of cultural signs through the body and its symbols.

The destructive power amassed by the second World War, and the sheer volume of death presented through increasing media coverage of wartime events, was reflected in the work of documentary filmmakers. Georges Franju explored with a calm scrutiny in Le Sang des Betes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949) the unceasing slaughter of animals in a calm and serene Parisian setting. In 1952 Franju directed the film Hotel des Invalides, a montage which coupled footage of those whose lives were ruined in the war with footage of post-war youth learning about the technology of weaponry on a tour. The Yugoslavian film, Apel (Roll Call, 1964) by Vera Jocic, attempted an evocation of the concentration camp experiences of artist Veda Jocic. In this film, the bodies of Jocic and others were represented by wizened and dried clay sculptures, a representation which makes material the increasing tendency towards the cinematic representation of bodily transformation seen in the postwar era. This theme of bodily transformation runs not only through postwar documentary forms, but through film noir, action, and horror genres as well.

The significance of the transformation of the body in cinematic codes is described by Ellen Sobchack in her article, Inscribing Ethical Spaces. In short, increasing taboos against death in western society led to a taboo on the depiction of death by the 20th century. Georges Bataille wrote:

2. Bataille, Georges, Erotism: Death & Sensuality, 1986, San Francisco, California: City Lights Books, pp.46-47
Death is a danger for those left behind. If they have to bury the corpse it is less in order to keep it safe than to keep themselves safe from its contagion…. The corpse will rot; this biological disorder, like the newly dead body a symbol of destiny, is threatening in itself… which of us could be sure of not quailing at the site of a dead body crawling of maggots?2

Dying, then, has come to be cinematically represented by images of violence, bodily transformation, and the abruptness of the cinematic apparatus (stop-motion).

3. Monaco, James, Alain Resnais, 1978. New York: Oxford University Press, p.137.
In Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Resnais, confounded by the problem of documentarily representing the scenes of death left in the wake of the atom bomb, turned to a melding of fiction and documentary. Duras termed this montage of fact and fiction "false documentary."3 This approach weaves the universality of a love story with a plethora of Hiroshima death images, many of them from documentary footage. According to Duras, if Hiroshima became the mise-en-scene for a story of lovers, it would reside more easily in the unconscious of the spectator. Through the making of a "false documentary," she and Resnais could then "probe the lesson of Hiroshima more deeply than any made-to-order documentary."

This approach addressed the lack of cultural codes to signify death, the enormity of the destruction witnessed in World War II and its impact on societal consciousness. It also acknowledged an issue which would come to be raised innumerable times in the postwar era, as Life magazine and the evening news made the consumption of images of suffering — from Minamata, to Korea, to Vietnam — ubiquitous, just another facet of life.

The combination of this fictional account of the chance encounter and intense affair between a Japanese man and a French woman, and the images of destruction of Hiroshima, is in many ways unremarkable. Societal codes have long equated sex and death. Again, Bataille: "In human consciousness eroticism is that within man which calls his being into question."

So too does the ironical combination of subject matter within this film. Initially the camera rests on the abstracted bodies; abstraction a compositional technique which is experienced by many as a violent disjointing of the body-landscape. Moreover, these disjointed and fragmented body-parts are not so different from the parts of walls, the fragments of stone, the twisted bicycles and the human hair which are displayed in the Hiroshima museum. Disjointed in such a way, made analogous to the objects and strewn about human parts pictured in the museum, the lovers are already dead, have died a long time ago. She was to have died in Nevers with her lover; he should have left this world along with his family, if he had only been in Hi-ro-shi-ma.

As a device, placing the matrix of a love story between a woman and a man upon the scene of Hiroshima carries with it quite a few ramifications. For Americans, the sufferings of World War II were removed, projected upon the European continent. For those who did not personally experience the horror of the death camps or the atom bomb, these sufferings were unfathomable. Loss of love, however, is something most claim to understand. And the experience of sorrow over lost love is accessible, well-documented in literature, and endlessly signified in society. Where death confounds, even thwarts the spectator, loss of love is imaginable, seemingly palpable, an individual memory. Thus it is that the narrative structure of Hiroshima, Mon Amour presents to the spectator existing and comprehensible codes marking the profound personal loss of love as a conduit through which to attempt to understand the enormity, the inexpressibility of Hiroshima.

James Monaco has criticized this technique as ineffective:

…it is far too easy to read Hiroshima, Mon Amour backwards, or inside out: as primarily a love story, one which uses Hiroshima and its history rather obscenely as background and filler to multiply the drama inherent in this supposedly intentionally banal story.

Given the difficulty of the subject matter that Hiroshima represents and, indeed, the fact that the nuclear holocausts which took place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are so seldom represented in literature and film, this seems a rather spurious criticism.

Hiroshima did not exist within the international consciousness prior to World War II. Despite the Meiji Reformation in the late 1900's, Japan remained an isolated "island country," a place of mystery to westerners. Hiroshima was by no means, "a household name." Nor was Nagasaki. It was this act of destruction by American forces, the dropping of the atom bomb, which "put it on the map," lodged the name Hiroshima within the human consciousness. Just as the French woman calls the man: "Hi-ro-shi-ma," so too do we call the irrevocable dropping of the bomb, the transoformation of an era and a consciousness, by the name of the place: Hiroshima. In short, the event of the atomic bomb dropping subsumes the physical place, becomes the place. For Americans, Hiroshima does not exist without the event, and in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the man does not exist apart from the name of this place destroyed. The scheme of transformation through death and love is almost frighteningly invoked through the French woman's desperate and impassioned pleas of the Japanese man: "You destroy me. You are good for me…. Deform me, make me ugly."

Hiroshima, Mon Amour dwells not only on the transformation of the body, through love, through war and destruction, but also centers on loss through the devices of vision and memory. Within the dynamic of the lovers, a tension is created vis-a-vis what she claims to know, to have seen, and what he knows she will never know, could never see. As she, the woman who losts her love in Nevers, recounts the array of body parts, molten iron, documentary photographs seen in the museum of Hiroshima, over and over again, he intones: "You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing." This exchange both mirrors and emphasizes the position, the innocence, of the spectator. Though we are brought closer to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the French woman and her intimacy with the Japanese man, with Hiroshima, though we grapple with the documentary scenes interspersed throughout the film, like the French woman who has survived the loss of her love in Nevers and who lives yet with its grief, we know nothing, we see nothing.

Concurrent, too, with her poetically structured description, the spectator sees what cannot be seen, what cannot be known, the documentary footage included in the film. The effect is one of cautioning the spectator that the camera gaze is not the event. Similarly, the opening frames of the film represent the inability to see. The footage of the lovers is dark and so contrasty that it is difficult to discern the abstracted human parts. The documentary footage over which the Japanese man speaks of sights unseen often falls upon those A-bomb victims who have lost their vision, as we perhaps lose sight of our memories of the Hiroshima because its destruction utterly overwhelms cultural codes. The camera gaze falls upon a child revealed to the spectator as blind in one eye; the sight of a man who has not slept, who in several years has had no respite from seeing; a young girl whose gaze is turned to the reflection of her own deformed/transformed face in a mirror. As the camera gaze rests on a woman lying down, pictured is the surreal (Bunuelian) act of surgical forceps reaching to extract an eye. This woman will see no more. Over this footage, the French woman reflects, "Just as in love this illusion exists, this illusion of being able never to forget, so I was under the illusion that I would never forget Hiroshima. Just as in love." If we cannot see, cannot know, how then can we remember?


4. Barnouw, Ibid, p.180
The dialogue of the lovers throughout the film functions as a covert voice-over. The poeticization of the description both distances the listener and yet creates a particular tension between the words and the rhythms, and the graphic and brutal images depicted on the screen. The voice-over/dialogue of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, is not too far removed from the narrative voice-over Resnais employed in Nuit et Bruillard, both in the handling of subject matter, and in its disjointed and dreamlike form:

Those who pretend to take hope again as the image fades, as though there were a cure for the plague of these camps. Those of us who present to believe that all this happened only once, at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see, who do not heed the cry to the end of time.4

5. Kroker, Arthur and Marilouise, eds. Body Invaders: Panic Sex in America, 1987, New York: St. Martin's Press, 275pp.
Postmodern theorists discuss the body as the sight of inscription. In Panic Sex in America, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker postulate human sexuality as a:

killing zone, when desire is fascinating only as a sign of its own negation, and when the pleasure of catastrophe is what drives ultramodern culture onwards in its free fall through a panic scene of loss, cancellation, and exterminism.5

This aptly explains the necessity of an "impossible love" for the French woman in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and begins to access the fabric of a culture so encumbered by disaster that it is impossible to shake the effects, to adequately experience the pain and move on. Instead, then, there is created the necessity, the inevitability, of reliving such painful episodes again and again. The Krokers propose that the body promises only its own negation; this vow of the flesh is illustrated in detail in the intercutting of documentary film of nuclear apocalpyse and the bodies of lovers who both enjoy and suffer an impossible love in Resnais' film.

Time, memory, vision and loss are themes explored with great extravagance by postmodern thinkers and theorists, in a style similar to Resnais' treatment of these same subjects. Hiroshima is not simply the place of the event, the name of the Japanese man. Perhaps in this era of exteriorized body-parts and the disappearing body, perhaps in this postmodern era we have abandoned memory to the place: Hi-ro-shi-ma.end


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