Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

The opening 20 minutes of Hiroshima Mon Amour oscillates between remembering and forgetting. The site of this tension is the tragic aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. While a woman’s voice insists she’s seen with her own eyes the artifacts and the objects that display the aftermath of the nuclear bombing, a man’s voice insisted that she’s seen nothing and that these things she claims are false.

Echoes of Alain Resnais visual essay Night and Fog permeate the tension of representation and remembrance that form the opening section. Did this woman truly see the suffering of Hiroshima? Can she even begin to claim such knowledge without experiencing firstand an event so tragic and unfathomable? Can she own such knowledge, own it on the level of understanding it fully, or is it best to forget it?

The film folds this massive, mind-boggling macrocosm of suffering into a small relationship: the affair between French actress, Her (Emmanuelle Riva), and a Japanese architect, Him (Eiki Okada). As the couple comes to the end of their time together, they’re forced to deal with the same questions of remembrance or forgetfulness. Is it best to just go off and lead their own lives, or should they see their relationship as something that will bring them to a new point in life?

Marguerite Duras’ screenplay gives Alain Resnais the subject he needs. If, as he concluded in his attempt to document the Holacaust in Night and Fog, he cannot do justice to depicting the suffering of human beings on a massive scale, perhaps he can embody suffering and explore it in the life of one human being, delving into the anguish and torment of her past.

As Lui begins to slowly bring out this painful past in her life, the difficult question emerges on an individual level. Do we as human beings who all have some form of suffering in our past close off that pain, contain it and repress it, or do we work through the trauma, the anguish and torment? While the latter might seem like the obvious answer, as he learns, pressing someone into dealing with their pain might be the fastest way to begin to lose them.

Hiroshima Mon Amour doesn’t tackle the quandary of why pain exists and what its purpose is, but the human relationship with pain. How does it shape us, form us, what does our pain do inside of us, how does it change the way we relate to people? Does it change the people we love, or perhaps hue or preconceptions of people we’ve yet to meet? More than just posing these questions, Hiroshima Mon Amour argues that pain shapes people in ways that can be traumatic, but also sees some beauty in the end process of pain.

As sympathetic as the camera is towards the character, intimately wrapped up in them like a lover, there’s a harsh and bleak edge that grids away at the characters. The constant oppression of pain and torment is constantly bearing down, fatalistically. And yet, it’s beauty, light and warmth that the film finds blossoming in the mist of this pain, like the lone plant bursting out from the ashes.

Hiroshima Mon Amour serves as both the reiteration and fulfillment of Resnais’ problem of representing human suffering. Film is not omnipresent, but it can capture in detail a singular subject and by embracing that subject, Hiroshima Mon Amour finds a way to do at least some form of justice to the problem of pain.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing