Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas, Pierre Barbaud, Bernard Fresson
Director: Alain Resnais
Audio: Dolby Digital French 1.0 mono
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full screen 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: commentary, interviews with Alain Resnais, interviews with Emmanuelle Riva, screenplay annotations, music-only audio track
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: June 24, 2003

"I think that in a few years, in ten, in twenty or thirty years, we shall know whether Hiroshima was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema." - Eric Rohmer

Film ****

In the history of cinema, there have been relatively few film movements as innovative as the French New Wave movement.  The films which arose during the peak of this movement, from 1959-62, introduced a new language for film and a fresh artistic style whose influence can still be seen in many films today.  While Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer were among the most prominent of the New Wave directors, even they acknowledged that one of their contemporaries, who was not even an auteur, was probably the single most innovative director in France at the time.  That director was Alain Resnais.

Resnais did not consider himself a member of the New Wave.  For one, he was a generation older than the other New Wave directors.  For another, he had already been directing or editing films for quite some time by the onset of the New Wave, though he did not release his first feature length film until he was thirty-seven.  His early filmmaking career, which had begun shortly after the second World War, had been comprised mostly of silent documentaries on 16mm film.  In 1948, he released his first 35mm short, Van Gogh, an Academy Award winner.  Through this film and other short subjects, Resnais was slowly able to make a name for himself.  His 1956 short film Night and Fog is considered his finest short feature but, more importantly, it experimented with the style that would finally be brought to full maturity in Resnais' first feature length film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). 

At its premiere, Hiroshima Mon Amour must have seem like a work of inspiration.  Filmed in a daring, almost ethereal manner, the film showcased a boldly innovative flashback structure which de-constructed the timeline.  Past and present seemed to co-exist, merging memories with reality to create an almost hypnotic tone throughout the film.  At once reminiscent of the great Russian montage films of the silent era, Resnais' film also invited comparisons with the modern art movement of cubism as it might have been applied to cinema.  Herein was a film which had been shattered into fragments and then re-assembled into a new creation, similar yet wholly original in its reconstituted form.  The usage of subjective time and fragmented construction defined Resnais' career but was rarely more prominent than in Hiroshima Mon Amour, which earned the International Critics' Award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival.

Eric Rohmer had once remarked that, prior to Hiroshima Mon Amour, there hadn't been "any profoundly modern cinema that attempts to do what cubism did in painting and the American novel in literature, in other words a kind of reconstitution of reality out of a kind of splintering which could have seemed quite arbitrary to the uninitiated."  Indeed, Resnais' style has been emulated often over the years, even by such accomplished directors as Ingmar Bergman (in Persona), Nicolas Roeg (particularly in his masterpiece Walkabout) or Terrence Malick.

Originally, Hiroshima Mon Amour had been meant to be a documentary.  Entitled Picadon, it was to have been an examination of the atomic bomb explosion and its impact upon the Japanese collective conscience.  However, during pre-production, Resnais altered the direction of his film, focusing instead upon the theme of Hiroshima as experienced through the eyes and ears of a foreign woman.  The film would be a fictional tale, perhaps an allegory on loss and the uncertainties of the future.

Resnais recruited the literary talents of novelist Marguerite Duras to help him with the film's story.  Though Resnais was not technically an auteur and usually relied heavily upon the contribution of screenwriters, he nevertheless often collaborated quite closely with them.  In the case of Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais had the fortune of working with a novelist whose literary experience provided a flowing, poetic thread to many of the film's scenes.  Coupled with Resnais' innovative editing technique, the film acquired a lyrical, surreal nature, like a wistful daydream where the separations between visions of the mind's imagination and reality had dissolved.  The film was, in a sense, a beautiful fusion of the expressive passages of a novel's text with the visually artistic potential of the cinema.

Indeed, Hiroshima Mon Amour can be said to exist on several levels.  On the surface, there is a superficial plot of two lovers, a French woman and a Japanese man, who spend two evenings together.  The first evening, of which we the viewers only catch a glimmer, is a pleasant one, whereas the ensuing twenty-four hours, on which the film focuses, are haunted by the couple's knowledge that their time together is fleeting.  On another level, the film reveals its origin as a documentary, for the memories of the Hiroshima tragedy resonate throughout the film, whether in the film's presentation of archival footage or from the environs of the actual Hiroshima, in which the film was shot.  On yet another level, the film is a deeply personal one, of one woman's efforts to comprehend the events of her past and their mirrored projections upon the present.  In this sense, since the scale of the human tragedy at Hiroshima is often too great for a mind to truly comprehend, its symbolic representation in the allegorical memories of one woman's life offers a more intimate and sympathetic connection.

Hiroshima Mon Amour has only two main characters - a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) and her Japanese lover (Eiji Okada).  In fact, the very first image in Hiroshima Mon Amour is that of the two lovers, intertwined as ashes slowly rain down upon their bodies.  It is a somewhat abstract image, yet it is also a subtle introduction to one of the film's themes, that of the interconnection between love and tragedy and of the timelessness of human emotion.

The following fifteen minutes of Hiroshima Mon Amour are extremely harrowing.  Presented in an extended prologue (interspersed with quick shots of the two lovers in close embrace) are gut-wrenching, archival films of the aftermath of the Hiroshima attack.  We'll see the city in ruins, mutilated animals, horribly disfigured or injured survivors, and a great deal of human suffering, even among the deformed, innocent children born after the war.  While some of this footage is borrowed from a Japanese reconstruction film of the tragedy, a lot of it is actual newsreel footage and can be almost too painful to watch at times.  Even as jaded as many viewers are nowadays, the images presented in the beginning moments of Hiroshima Mon Amour have lost little of their power to affect us.

The story proper commences on the morning after the couple's first night together.  Throughout the film, this couple will drift apart but come together again, as though in a slow waltz.  They are clearly amorous of one another, yet both grasp the reality of the situation, that the woman must soon depart for her home and family in France, never to return again.  They acknowledge that they should part company yet find themselves unable to do so repetitively.  Resnais' camera records their shared happiness and anguish, alternating between numerous fluid tracking shots, which help to establish the film's dreamlike ambience, and numerous close-ups on the actors, which provide a tangible intimacy to the relationship between the man and the woman.

On a superficial level, that is really all there is to the film.  The couple, by the film's conclusion, have reached an indecisive crossroads.  The film's story has looped back to its beginning, and we might even imagine that the film will end as it began.  Will the new dawn find the couple together again in each other's close embrace, with a fresh new day to ponder their dilemma?  The film offers no conclusive evidence one way or the other, and if viewed simply as a typical romance, its ending may seem unsatisfactory and incomplete.

But Hiroshima Mon Amour is not really about an affair between a man and a woman.  It is about the sense of loss, of the search for purpose or meaning amidst life's joys and tragedies.  On a deeper level, the film is about the woman's internal search for herself.  She is caught between a secret past which tears at her soul even as the memories of that past are finally fading away.  Her future is uncertain and whether it lies in Hiroshima or France, she cannot determine.  She is, in fact, a woman without identity, and she does not even possess a name in the film.  Ironically, Riva's character is herself an actress who has come to Hiroshima to participate in a film for peace, a point which some film critics, in analyzing the film, have noted in suggesting that perhaps Emmanuelle Riva is in a documentary about herself.  It is an interesting concept, and a slightly different angle on the theme of a film-within-a-film.

Regardless, Riva's character has an intensely private and personal past, of which even her husband and children are not aware.  Yet, she decides to tell her story to her Japanese lover.  She narrates this story in detail to him, despite the fact that she has only known him for but a day and that he is still a stranger to her.  What is her rationale for doing so?  Does she see parallels between her past experiences and her current affair?  Is it a reflection of her past guilt or perhaps a desire to seek comfort?  The woman is conflicted between her desire to both remember the past and to forget it.  In revealing her past to this man, little by little, perhaps she is seeking forgiveness or resolution.

To some degree, Riva's character is already a reborn person.  She has transformed herself from the utterly broken spirit of her past into a happy woman with a family and a career.  But though memories may fade, the painful vestige of those memories may still linger.  And so it is with Hiroshima as well, for the town had only just been re-built less than a decade after the bombing.  It had been transformed into a pleasant tourist attraction but the remnants of its painful past still haunt the town.

What does it mean to live, or more importantly, to survive in the aftermath of a tragedy, whether of a personal nature or on a human scale?  That is truly the question posed by this film.  Resnais has crafted a beautiful and provocative film in Hiroshima Mon Amour.  Its non-linear style and avant-garde sensibilities may seem unusual for a love story, but they serve to accentuate the haunting aura of displacement and uncertainty in the film.  Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of the true film masterpieces of the last fifty years.  Its lyricism and images, sometimes graceful and sometimes grotesque, may have been diluted over the years due to countless imitations in other films, but this film was one of the greatest of the entire French New Wave and remains a beautiful film to this day.

Video ***

There are many achingly-gorgeous compositions in Hiroshima Mon Amour.  It is one of those rare films which can be watched in silence while retaining much of its mesmerizing effect.  Happily, Criterion has done a fine job in restoring the image of the film.  Hiroshima Mon Amour is presented in a black & white, full-screen 1.33:1 digital transfer with restored image and sound and improved English subtitles.  The source print was a 35mm composite fine grain master.  Some dust and a few minor scratches do remain, but the image quality is generally fairly sharp with good contrast delineation.  The film's appearance does look its age, in part due to the old and scratched archival newsreels used in portions of the film, but overall the presentation is very pleasing to the eye and quite nice for a black & white film.

Audio ***

The audio is mono 1.0 and is directed to the center channel, so do not expect any aural fireworks.  Sound quality is sometimes thin, belying its monophonic origin, but nevertheless, the audio is clean of hisses or pops and makes for a generally pleasant listening experience.

Giovanni Fusco, composer for several of Michelangelo Antonioni's films (including L'Avventura), has created a score that is at times reminiscent of traditional Japanese music, at times abstractly atonal, and at times melodious.  The overall effect is a hypnotic one, and the score is the key to establishing the sense of displacement and the search for purpose by the film's main characters.  I am delighted that Criterion decided to include a music-only track with this disc.  I usually ignore such tracks, but in this case, it's worth a listen, as much credit for the film's rich atmosphere must be given to the wonderful harmony between the film's images and this fine score.

Features ****

This being a Criterion release, it goes without saying that the features included with the film are first-rate.  Other companies should earnestly try to emulate the quality of the features on Criterion DVDs.  This DVD comes with a couple of optional audio tracks.  For those interested in the delightful score, there is the solid music-and-effects track.  For those interested in critical discussion, there is an audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie.  As always with Criterion releases, this is a well-prepared and carefully researched commentary and should please any fans searching for an insightful examination of the film.

There are two interviews with Alain Resnais on this DVD.  The first one is a 5-1/2 minute excerpt from a 1961 spot for Cinepanorama.  Resnais, looking somewhat like a bespectacled Dr. Strangelove, provides a few broad comments on his films in general, not just Hiroshima Mon Amour.  The second interview, from Le Cinéma des cinéastes, is a 10-1/2 minute interview from 1980 in which Resnais goes into considerable details about the early planning stages of Hiroshima Mon Amour.  His remarks are so utterly riveting that it is easy to overlook the fact that this is an audio-only interview played over a still photograph of Resnais.

Emmanuelle Riva also provides two interviews for this DVD.  The first is an excerpt from a 1959 interview for Cinepanorama.  Filmed in Cannes, it is a 5-1/2 minute segment in which Riva briefly discusses her stage career and also provides a synopsis for Hiroshima Mon Amour.  This interview contains some mild spoilers, so some viewers may wish to wait until after watching the film to watch this interview.  Then again, since the film is really more about the mood rather than the storyline, Riva's comments should not diminish the film's impact on any initial viewing.  The second interview is a new, 20-minute segment with Emmanuelle Riva, filmed exclusively for this DVD.  Riva is in high spirits and recounts many amusing anecdotes, including how she was cast for the film almost by chance and how Eiji Okada, her co-star, could speak no French but delivered his lines phonetically!

Lastly, the DVD contains excerpts from Marguerite Duras' screenplay annotations.  These are narrated over clips from the film itself and are about 8 minutes in total length.  Somewhat literary in content, they reveal Duras' obvious background as a novelist.  Coincidentally, Duras also achieved cinematic fame again much later in life when her novel The Lover, about a romance between an Asian man and a very young girl played by Jane March, was made into a film in the 1990's.

My favorite feature isn't actually on the disc itself.  Rather, it is a 32-page booklet included with the film.  This booklet is a wonderful reference for fans of the film.  It includes a nice essay by Cahiers du Cinéma contributor Kent Jones, a long transcript excerpt of a very enlightening 1959 round-table discussion of the film by many leading New Wave directors, and a few shorter essays on the film's composer Giovanni Fusco, and the Japanese and French main characters.  It's a wonderful read!


Hiroshima Mon Amour was a tremendous influence upon many of the French New Wave directors and is today considered one of the great masterpieces of film history.  With this fine release, once again Criterion has done a masterful job, and fans of European cinema will absolutely want to obtain this disc.