Hiroshima, Mon Amour was kept out of the main competition at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival so as not to offend the Americans. Further, it has long been unavailable for exhibition in the U.S. due to rights issues. So it is with particular fanfare that this beautifully-restored version screens all over the country this month, complete with an evocative re-release poster by the artist and illustrator Keiko Kimura.
The film is stunning. The well-known, long opening montage of the lovers entwined under different seasonal and atmospheric conditions loses all hint of eroticism when those bodies start to resemble the dead and near-dead bodies after the bombing of Hiroshima. The cinematography, to me so reminiscent of Italian neo-realist cinema—particularly with its unflinching landscapes of modernity, post-war repair, trauma, and most of all, unspoken grief, anger, and despair—also hints at the landscape of the heart which these two lovers occupy—raw, incomplete, and yet full of futile hope. Critically, there is a very sympathetic visual portrayal of Hiroshima/Japan as a both a place of great beauty, courage, and elegance, and where the past is open, raw, and unburied.
The unnamed lovers are a French woman, who, as we find out later in a devastating series of flashbacks, fell in (first) love with a German officer who was violently killed in her town, thus rendering her temporarily insane; and, a Japanese man who is a survivor of Hiroshima. In the classic opening scene, they talk around and through Hiroshima. In the hushed tones of lovers in bed they talk around the trauma and emptiness as though they were the only survivors left on earth, clinging to sanity and love. During the course of a day and a night they circle around each other tentatively and desperately, wanting to love, or at least experience something that feels like the kind of love which was possible before war destroyed the world they knew. They also know, in some way, that their love is only possible because of the war and because of Hiroshima’s bombing; she would not be in Hiroshima without the tragedy. They love each other because they understand each other, even when that understanding is about something awful. This foundation for love is no more stable than the illusion that the world will ever be the same again.
There is something still resonant and contemporary about Hiroshima, with its singular and influential style, the very literary script by Marguerite Duras, and the narrative play on the past, present and future. Further, its unflinching treatment of war and post-war damage still has relevance for today’s audiences.