Last Updated 21 Apr 2020

Mon Amour

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Caught in the persistence of unpleasant memories, love and death intertwined with the vestiges of war, the city Hiroshima transforms from a site of horrendous tragedy to a symbol of the blossoming of love despite the iniquities of trauma brought by the war. In Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a French actress developed an intense affair with a Japanese architect. Her lover seems to have to be someone unexpectedly her type, for she fell previously for a German soldier during the World War II in Nevers, France.

The actress was going to Hiroshima to play a part in a film “about peace”.  Her intention of going there was to erase her tragic memories of the war, only to find out that her memories magnified by the greater collective memory of atomic destruction. The film Hiroshima, Mon Amour does not place a fixed point where emotion, morality and ethics meet, it lets the viewer decide for themselves on how they interpret how the scenes and the place unites to weave the sublimity of their love story:

The magnificent Emmanuelle Riva is less the “star” of the film than its primary “soloist,” to extend the musical metaphor––in comparison, Eiji Okada’s architect-lover is more of a first violin type. There is a dominant motif, which is the sense of being overpowered, ravished, taken––a French woman who wants to be overpowered by her Japanese lover (“Take me. Deform me, make me ugly”), an Asian man who is consumed by his Western lover’s beauty and unknowability, a fictional peace rally overwhelmed by its real-life antecedent, everyday reality drowned out by a flood of memories, a city devastated by nuclear force (Jones, 1959).

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Although classified as an art film that developed in the French New Wave movement in the early 1960s, the movie seems to transform into somewhat a docu-drama that serves to remind the viewers about the extent of damage of the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima. In the opening of the film alone, the movie bursts with symbolic close-ups of entwined human limbs covered in ash, summoning to memory the greatness of the catastrophe that cost millions of human lives. Using a series of dissolves, the viewers are introduced to the sweaty limbs of the film's lovers, as they are making love. A viewer may conceive the shots differently as they are led to think if it is really sweat, or mutations that resulted from the atomic bomb blasting that occurred.

These shots convey in seconds the weird tension between the personal and the global at the film's core. They're also an indication of the visual density of Resnais' work: nothing on screen is throw-away. Those opening shots are followed by a 10-minute tour de force segment in which the director, Alan Resnais, seamlessly combines newly shot footage of the macabre artifacts (hair, teeth, pieces of human flesh in plastic display cases) at Hiroshima's museum remembering the nuclear attack, footage from Children of Hiroshima (Gembaku no ko), Japanese director Kaneto Shindô's 1952 feature about the attack and its effects on the city's population, and gruesome newsreel footage of the injured and dying shot days after the bomb was dropped (Mancini, 2003).

Scripted by the novelist Marguerite Duras, both protagonists are indeed ‘possessed’ by memories of the traumatic events they have respectively endured, and it is only thanks to a passionate love affair that their captivation by images from the past is converted into speech. It is as if their eroticized body triggers the release of traumatic memories and the experiencing for the first time of how war affected them, although no words were verbally expressed.

This opening montage is accompanied by the lyrical voice-over of the lovers, the French woman's insistence she's seen Hiroshima and the effects of the bomb, the Japanese man's denial she ever could. The elliptical, artificial, and literary nature of the voice-over, its load of subtext could summon a certain sadness they both are hiding as a result of their traumas.

Transmogrifying the social atmosphere at a certain point of history and the universal quality of love regardless of the national origin, the relationship establishes this by uniting traumatic memories and eroticized bodies routed through another level of signification, which has proved to be the film's most ambiguous dimension. For most spectators, it is the film's recourse to analogy that generates the greatest unease.

It is not simply that the film properly arranges memories in a series of historical events that movie attempts to destabilize the enlightening narratives of the end of the Second World War, but the excesses associated with France's Liberation on the one hand, and the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the other, gathers the over all feel of what the movie is all about. The discomfort that the film is still capable of provoking arises from the kinds of analogy it constructs between the personal memories and the collective commemoration of an atomic bomb that nearly annihilated the place – the milieu where the characters are trapped.

Is Hiroshima Mon Amour the story of a woman? Or is it the story of a place where a tragedy has occurred? Or of two places, housing two separate tragedies, one massive and the other private? In a sense, these questions belong to the film itself. The fact that Hiroshima continues to resist a comforting sense of definition almost fifty years after its release may help to account for Resnais’ nervousness when he set off for the shoot in Japan. He was convinced that his film was going to fall apart, but the irony is that he and Duras had never meant for it to come together in the first place.

What they created, with the greatest delicacy and emotional and physical precision, was an anxious aesthetic object, as unsettled over its own identity and sense of direction as the world was unsettled over how to go about its business after the cataclysmic horror of World War II (Jones, 1959).

As Damian Cannon (1997) expounded, Hiroshima is the very place where the conservation of the event in memory and its refutation in forgetting become simultaneously possible. Elle chooses to tell her story because she is in a place where things can be remembered, and then, ultimately, forgotten. It is important to note that the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima signaled the end of the war in Europe.

Elle arrives in Paris (a new place) that very day, consecrating by her displacement her forgetting of Nevers.  The writer Duras explains in her synopsis that because of the very place it evolves from, and in order for Hiroshima to maintain its ties to history, the love story has to precede and subsume the story of Hiroshima.

On the other hand, the function of the Nevers story serves to introduce the nitty-gritty understanding of the character of the female lead, Elle. Ropars Wuilleumier (1992) shared that the ‘unrepresentability’ of Hiroshima's catastrophe is transferred onto the ‘narratability’ of Elle's story of a doomed love affair in Nevers.

As Ropars-Wuilleumier points out, Lui, the Japanese lover, assumes exactly the position of the analyst in relation to Elle's narration of her Nevers past at the moment when he accepts being addressed as her dead German lover, when he demands of Elle: “When you are in the cellar, am I dead?” But, consistently with Ropars-Wuilleumier reading of Hiroshima, Mon Amour's analogical strategy, she insists that we should not see this ‘psychoanalytic simulacrum’ as operating primarily on behalf of the ‘working-through’ of the traumatic memory of Elle. Rather, the elaboration of the Nevers story in this symbolism implicitly poses the question of what it means to meander through the legacy of the atomic catastrophe (p. 179-180).

In early sequences, when Elle relates the evidence of destruction she has seen on her visits to hospitals and museums, Lui tells her: “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. You know nothing”. Elle in turn insists that she has seen ‘everything’, knows ‘everything’ and has thus become convinced that she will never forget Hiroshima. But it is only after the transmission of her story of Nevers in three flashback sequences that the film's viewers will realize that Elle has been seeking to inscribe in her memory images of Hiroshima's destruction and its aftermath in order to do battle with the forces of forgetting that overwhelm even the strongest compulsion to remember.

Early in the film, Elle tells Lui that they both share the desire to resist to forget the memories that bind them to their respective traumatic pasts: “Like you, I know what it is to forget… like you, I'm over-endowed with memory… like you, I too have tried with all my might not to forget. Like you, I forgot. Like you, I wanted to have an inconsolable memory, a memory of shadows and stones”. The first intrusion of another memory that also once seemed unforgettable, a flashing image of the hand of her dead German soldier, makes her realize that her conviction that she will preserve an unforgettable memory of what she has seen in Hiroshima, must also be an illusion (Turim, 1989).

Through telling to Lui the story of Nevers, of her previous love affair love with a German soldier, his assassination by the Resistance and her punishment as a femme tondue, a woman whose head was shaven for (literally) ‘sleeping with the enemy’. With this, Elle undertakes her long-belated labor of mourning. Only as her narration nears completion does this traumatic memory of her German lover lying dead on the Quai de la Loire, which has made Elle captive to her past, achieve full representation (Ropars-Wuilleumier 1992, p. 182). It is only when it achieves representation does the memory in turn risk being subjected to the forces of forgetting. As the film suggests, this is the ambiguous fate awaiting memories of what has unfolded and about unfold in Hiroshima.

Clearly, the passage in the final scene, when Elle cries out in anguish: “Til forget you! I'm forgetting you already!”, we are bound to vicariously feel that she is not only experiencing the pain of progressively forgetting the death of her ‘first love’, but that she suffers by anticipation the pain of forgetting Lui and Hiroshima. As the significance of this passage implies, the memory that possessed her is shown to be somewhat also her tool for her own “healing process” of forgetting, wherein forgetting is not simply the consequence of repression or social neglect, but something that cleanses you of your past pains and the realization of the necessity of ‘letting go’ of the traumatic memory itself.

Thus, through the film's guides us to the process of an individual's compulsion to remember and need to forget. As Ropars-Wuilleumier (1992) explained, “the horror of Hiroshima is not eclipsed, but it becomes the object of a secret reflection upon the terms of both enunciation and expulsion of the historical event” (p. 291). . In this process, writer Duras sacrifices her agency within the narrative, giving the narration over to setting and story. This is mirrored at the end of Hiroshima, Mon Amour where the final lines of dialogue identify the two characters of the film with the cities they are from, Hiroshima, Japan, and Nevers, France (Sample, 2004).

The overall tone of Hiroshima Mon Amour substantiates the thought that these painful memories at hand could whip us terribly with unrelenting repercussions in the future. Eventually, making all of us realize that these shared moments will somehow be forgotten. As a particularly depressing thought, there are at least a few moments of illumination in the darkness of what had caused us pain. To wit, Sample (2004) averred that the two protagonists’ love, free from spousal recrimination, is fulfilling and unweighed by ulterior motives proposes a viable meeting of souls that could help process and heal the pains of their past experiences.

Works Cited

  • Cannon, Damian. Hiroshima, Mon Amour: A Review. Movie Reviews UK, 1997.
  • Jones, Kent. Life Indefinite. Criterion Collection Website.  Acquired online last December 10, 2005 at http://www.criterionco.com/asp/release.asp?id=196;eid=317;section=essay
  • Mancini, Dan. Hiroshima, Mon Amour. DVD Verdict Review Website. Acquired online last December 10, 2005 at http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/hiroshimamonamour.php
  • Ropars-Wuilleumier, Marie Claire. How History Begets Meaning. In Saul Friedlander (ed.), Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution”’ (London: Harvard University Press, 1992).
  • Sample, C.K. Life and Text as Spectacle: Sacrificial Repetitions in Duras's The North China Lover, Literature/Film Quarterly. Salisbury: 2004, (32)4: 279-288.
  • Turim, Maureen. Flashbacks in Fiction and Film: Memory and History. New York: Routledge, 1989.

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