Forgive the sentimentality, but one of your correspondent’s all-time idols has just died unexpectedly (you know who it is- it’s not Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart) and it is hard to review a film about loss, pain and memory without wondering about all these obituaries, and who they are for. Perhaps a younger audience don’t watch French New Wave films. Perhaps they know them only as something difficult and boring that occasionally make the news when one of their directors passes away. Éric Rohmer in 2010, Chris Marker in 2012, Alain Resnais in 2014… how many of our “Heroes” are left?
The weapon against such melancholy is StudioCanal’s new Blu-Ray release of Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, freshly restored and looking darker, richer and more incisive than ever. Resnais’ feature debut sits satisfyingly between the twin poles of the Nouvelle Vague; as intellectually provocative and stylistically flamboyant as Jean-Luc Godard, as intimate and painfully emotive as Agnès Varda.
It begins with perhaps the greatest fifteen-minute stretch of any film ever made, opening on a sex scene photographed so closely that you can’t even tell what kind of creatures you’re watching until a hand comes into view. Neither are named; she is a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva), recalling all the things she saw in Hiroshima. He is a Japanese man (Eiji Okada), who interjects unsentimentally by saying she saw nothing – nothing, the implication goes, compared to him.
Underneath all this, the present tense of the scene is first interrupted then overwhelmed by documentary and flashback images. The cinematography, by the appropriately transnational team of Michio Takahashi and Sacha Vierny, prowls through museums and modernist buildings in the manner of Resnais’s classic 1956 short All the World’s Memory. You are irresistibly reminded that Resnais trained not as a director but an editor, and perhaps no film-maker has ever understood the rhythm of a film as well as he has. The feeling is of a constant ballet of camera movements and cuts, falling through space and time, to the black hole at the centre: real, horrifying footage showing victims of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.
The initial commission from Anatole Dauman was a companion piece to Resnais’s 1955 short Night and Fog, dealing with Hiroshima rather than the Holocaust. Resnais demurred, perhaps thinking of the screaming nightmares he suffered for months while working on Night and Fog. He suggested a fiction piece, though he worried only the French-Vietnamese author Marguerite Duras would be able to tackle the subject with skill and sensitivity. So Dauman gave him Duras, the first of a string of fruitful collaborations Resnais would have with experimental novelists. Few film-makers have entered such a committed conversation with modernist literature – aside from Duras’s work, the way the film mixes personal memories with history and geography reminds us.
In a short but rewarding interview on the disk, Riva talks about her thrill at getting to read Duras’s work, and the strength of her viewpoint makes Hiroshima Mon Amour something other than a purely director-led auteur piece. Riva also talks about the pressures of making the film on a shoestring in a different country, reminding us that this monolith of film, this world-shaking artwork, was really only a very modest production, made with the cheapest means available.
This is one of the most crucial reasons why we must remember, rewatch and celebrate the French New Wave; it prioritized intelligence, insight and imagination over budget and gloss every time. It is one of a series of ways in which Resnais’s film speaks so clearly to our own age. Its reflections on who gets to tell a story – the French woman is an actress in an anti-war film shooting in Hiroshima, to the Japanese man’s skepticism – could come straight out of a contemporary debate on representation. Working less than fifteen years after the atomic bomb was dropped, Resnais and Duras eschew current affairs completely, realising that the next battleground lies in how these events are remembered. It makes their film feel like a valuable period document and a living, breathing thing at the same time.
After Hiroshima Mon Amour was released, Rohmer suggested it could take up to thirty years before we understood its impact. If anything, this is a conservative estimate. As the titles of films such as Nagisa Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan and Michael Almereyda’s New Orleans Mon Amour testify, Resnais’s strategies for filming politics, trauma and memory haven’t been superseded in the 57 years since his feature debut. One day some future legend will pick up the baton Resnais was holding out and move cinema forward; we must content ourselves with watching what he left behind until that day comes.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is released on Studiocanal on January 18th