This summer, we who remained in Paris were able to plunge into the toppling splendours of the new wave of French cinema as it came racing in from Cannes, plumed with its prizes and its publicity. An invigorating experience where youthful panache made up for technical hesitations, and the rejuvenation of themes compensated for the lack of depth in their development. But perhaps only one film emerged from the froth and bubble as a real contribution to the cinematic medium, not merely by the treatment and originality of its subject, but by a grasp of the cinema’s possibilities in translating the modern concept of time and space. This film is Hiroshima, mon amour, directed by Alain Resnais, who at thirty-eight has been described as the most brilliant director of his generation.
To measure the importance of Resnais’ contribution, it is interesting to compare Hiroshima, mon amour with another film of the avant garde—Louis Malle’s Les Amants, which was completed in 1958 and is still to be seen on Paris screens. Three years younger than Resnais, Louis Malle already has two major films to his credit and is an experienced cameraman. Both films are scripted by women and have a woman in her early thirties as their central character.
Both are concerned with revealing this woman to herself, and to us, through a sexual experience. The dialogue in each case is distinguished—in Les Amants by a sophisticated economy, and in Hiroshima, mon amour by Marguerite Duras’ compressed poetic stylization which does not hesitate to employ the naked language of love. And both writers have been seconded by their directors, so that the silences, the speech of hands and bodies, ‘les temps morts’ as Resnais calls them, are as highly charged with meaning as the dialogue.
Here, no doubt, the obvious likenesses end. Louis Malle’s story is a straightforward progression of events. His heroine is married to a well-to-do editor of a provincial paper and lives in a country house fully equipped with family portraits, old retainers, separate apartments for herself and her husband, and a nurse for her small daughter. Such modern conveniences, and the absorption of her husband in his own affairs, leave our modern Madame Bovary with plenty of time to discover she is bored. She seeks distraction during increasingly frequent visits to a school friend who belongs to the ‘tout Paris’, and in a desultory affair with a handsome polo-player. Finally even her absorbed husband becomes aware that he is in danger of becoming a permanent grass widower, if not something worse; and he decides to examine the situation in close-up by inviting the school friend and the polo-player for the weekend.
Returning from Paris for the occasion , the heroine’s car breaks down and she thumbs a lift from a personable young anthropologist in a ‘deux chevaux’. Poor but of good family—as we discover later—this young man regards Madame Bovary’s milieu with gentle mockery, so that by the time they arrive late for dinner, she is ready to find her husband laughable, her polo player ridiculous and her school friend superficial.
Restless, after the others have retired for the night, she strolls through the moonlit garden where she encounters the anthropologist, who seemingly also finds it difficult to sleep. Their idyll through the park follows the traditional circuit of bridge and waterfall, floating in a boat under the willows a la Dreyer, hand in hand over open grasslands, until we return to the bedroom for the physical climax. There is no discreet pan away to light on water or swaying rushes. The camera remains a participant in the act of denouement, its eye travelling over the interlacing of the two bodies, holding the woman’s face as she abandons herself and her frigidity in a last cry of ‘Mon amant!’
Next morning the two lovers set out together in the ‘deux chevaux’, somewhat to the surprise of the husband and house party. But because young film-makers today have no illusions about living ‘happily ever after’, the closing note is not one of blissful expectancy, but rather a wan realization that the rapture of their first night may never be rediscovered, and that Madame Bovary’s education in living has only just begun.
This account of the film’s story are the bones which Jeanne Moreau covers with the flesh of a magnificent performance, and Louis Malle articulates with a subtlety and direction which distinguishes him as among the most professional of the new film-makers. But it also indicates the limits of the theme and its setting. This is the case history of an individual woman living in the closed world of a privileged few. If the milieu recalls Regie du Jeu, the film has none of the astringent overtones of Renoir’s picture of France’s rulers on the eve of the second World War. One might have hoped that Louis Malle’s familiarity with the provincial elite would have provided us with a more satiric assessment of the rules of today’s game. But though there is a tentative suggestion that another more workaday world exists in which love and personal fulfilment are possible, the choice of that world and the rejection of the other is made for sexual rather than intellectual reasons. The difficulties the lovers will have to encounter are not economic or social, but within themselves.
Because of these limitations, we are left with a feeling of disquiet as to the film’s intentions, as though Louis Malle had been more interested in erotic experiment than in following the example of Flaubert.
And yet the changes of moral attitude in present-day film heroines might have fascinated Flaubert because of the social changes they imply. In the days of The Sheik, pure young women could only indulge their desires under duress (cases of delicious rape were afterward sanctified by marriage). Anna Kareninas came to a tragic end. But in Les Amants and Hiroshima, mon amour extra-marital affairs are accepted as equally normal for women as well as men. It is the woman of Les Amants who leads the way to the bedroom. The central character in Hiroshima, mon amour admits quite simply that there have been other similar affairs. She describes herself as a ‘woman of doubtful morals’, and when the man asks her what that means she replies: ‘A woman who doubts the morality of others’. Here is the touchstone of the modern woman who has achieved in dependence. The moral values of the past have been discarded, and she is seeking a new morality which will dignify her changed position and illuminate her altered relationship with the man. In Les Amants the morality can only be personal. In Hiroshima, mon amour it is the morality of others which is in question.
The climax of Louis Malle’s film—the naked bodies of the lovers—is the opening shot of Resnais’ film, the physical act its point of departure. Over the close-up of strange, crystallised flesh comes the voice of the woman speaking in brief, punctuated phrases—not of herself or her lover—but of Hiroshima and what she has seen there. And at the end of each cadence, like a refrain, the man’s voice says: ‘You have seen nothing in Hiroshima’. Against the image of their flesh are set other images of the charred mutilated flesh of the victims of Hiroshima, the derelicts of death, the burnt-out faces and the empty eye-sockets. Nothing is spared us from the first film documents taken after the bomb was dropped, nor of its living victims; and yet the man’s voice continues to repeat that we have seen nothing of what happened in Hiroshima. Nevertheless after we have been reminded of what can happen to human bodies, we are allowed to return to the bodies of the lovers, and to discover that this hand, this shoulder, this soft flesh, belong to a French woman and a Japanese man.
In his opening sequence, Alain Resnais states the double theme of love and war in a way new to commercial film. Resnais’ great force in his documentary background, which includes such films as Guernica, Les Statues Meurent Aussi (on the degradation of African art under colonialism, and still banned in France), Nuit et Brouillard (a gathering together of the pitiful evidence which survived Hitler’s death camps).
From such films it is obvious that Resnais is used to dealing with issues which are important to more than a privileged minority, and so it is hardly surprising if in his first feature film we find the same broad approach to the theme of love, with its apposite placing of the tiny personal tragedy of Nevers and the immense tragedy of Hiroshima.
In the development of the theme, however, the contribution of the writer should not be underestimated. When Resnais was first asked to make a film on the atomic bomb, he could think of nothing that would not be a repetition of Nuit et Brouillard. It was only after his meeting with Marguerite Duras that the idea emerged which was to become Hiroshima, mon amour.
He asked her to provide him with a story in which the past should not be expressed in the usual flashback terms, but exist simultaneously with the present throughout the film; a story which would have the tone of a recitative rather than an anecdote, where the past would emerge without order or apparent design, as it might be evoked in a simple image or an incomplete incident by the present. The story would have no action in the usual dramatic sense of the term. It would be a film of an interior drama, where the outward image would only be related secondarily to the inner conflict. Its success would depend on a complete harmony between sound and image, actor and director.
Such a project pre-supposed considerable confidence in the audience, a confidence which has been justified. There are those, of course, who have been exasperated by this break with formula, without precedents to guide them in picking up clues to a human mystery. Even Resnais’ acknowledgement to Sacha Guitry and particularly to Roman d’un Tricheur can hardly have reassured them. But the critics in awarding him their prize as Cannes recognized Hiroshima, mon amour as a milestone in the history of the cinema, an enlargement of its scope and its profundity, the suppleness of its means, which cannot fail to influence the future work of all serious directors.
The form of the film has been described by Resnais as resembling a quartet. (His pre-occupation with film as the sonorous equivalent of opera is worth noting, for in his future work he hopes to achieve a film which will be as purely lyric as song. Indeed he would have liked the commentary to his film on plastics, Le Chant du Styrene, to be sung.) But Hiroshima is a quartet, and its first movement as we have seen is a statement of themes. A French woman comes to Hiroshima to take part in an international film on peace. On her last night she encounters a Japanese architect and goes to bed with him.
The next day, although he wants to see her again, she refuses. Intrigued by something in the woman he cannot understand, but which he feels is linked with her past in Nevers, the Japanese man follows her to the film lot, and takes her to his home. From there they go to a teahouse, where he discovers what has made her the woman she is today.
Second movement: variations on, and restatement of themes. The hints we have had in the first movement are developed. To the woman the inert body of the Japanese man as he lies asleep recalls her German lover during the war, when she was a girl of eighteen years in the French provincial town of Nevers. It was a first and passionate love which ended violently with the Liberation. The German was shot by partisans and she had her head shaved by citizens for fraternising with the enemy. For months afterward her family hides its shame by keeping her locked in the cellar. When she has ‘become reasonable’ they hurry her off to Paris under cover of night, where she arrives on the day the news is received of Hiroshima. Since then she has married and had children, but during fourteen years she has remained faithful to the memory of her German lover.
In this movement Resnais has used all his instruments in a brilliant synthesis of past and present. The woman in the teahouse draining glasses of beer is the same half-crazed creature licking water from the cellar walls. When she addresses her dead lover as ‘toi’, she is speaking at the same time to her present lover. In the memorable scene where she leaves Nevers at night, the Japanese music of the teahouse merges the two times and places. Nevers and Hiroshima have become one.
In the third movement—lento—the woman enters an almost surrealistic state where ordinary actions seem stupid. Her walk through the city at night, followed at a distance by the Japanese man, their moment on a bench in a station waiting-room, separated by an old Japanese woman, the visit to the almost empty night-club, and finally the return to the hotel bedroom—are simply the exterior framework of an inner battle. For the first time she has betrayed her German lover by recounting their story to this unknown Japanese—whose image, she realises, is already replacing that of the German.
If Les Amants has been compared with Regie du Jeu, Hiroshima, mon amour must stand beside Renoir’s other masterpiece, La Grande Illusion. But in Renoir’s war there was still a code of honour, still time for reflection. For Resnais, time is the most terrible enemy. If we are to prevent other Hiroshimas and the final blotting out of lover and enemy alike, the past must be kept as poignantly alive in the present as an open wound. The greatness of Hiroshima, mon amour is that it teaches us how to remember.
Catherine Dunan, Sydney playwright, is now living in Paris. Her plays include The Sword Sung and Sons of the Morning. In 1947 she won the Macquarie award for the best actress of the year, and her radio plays have been produced by the A.B.C. and the B.B.C. She directed the films Christmas Under the Sky, The Meeting Place, Men Wanted, This is the Life, and also wrote the commentaries for the films Indonesia Calling (director, Joris Ivens) and Journey of a Nation (director, John Heyer).