Saturday, October 26, 2013
Hiroshima Mon Amour
In the first five minutes of “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” we see a museum in that Japanese city displaying artifacts from the atomic blast. Floating in jars of formaldehyde are fragments of human scar tissue, ribbons of dead flesh labeled “keloid.” This image is an emblem for the film. Alain Resnais’ 1959 film is about wounds and how wounds heal and about the scars that abide after traumatic injury. A French woman has come to Hiroshima to act as an extra -- she is costumed as a nurse -- in an internationally produced “peace” film. On her penultimate night in the Japanese city, she sleeps with a local man and, then, spends the next day alternatively fleeing and embracing him. The Japanese man was fighting in the war when his city was bombed, but, perhaps, his family perished in the fire-storm. As it happens, the French woman harbors a memory that she has also concealed from her husband and family in Paris: during the war, she loved a German soldier who was shot to death on the last day of the occupation. After the war, she was humiliated by having her hair shaved, went mad for a time, and was locked away in a cellar in her home town of Nevers. The French woman’s encounter with Hiroshima, embodied in her Japanese lover, liberates her to narrate the story of her wartime love and her humiliation after the German boy was killed. Resnais stages his film across a 24 hour period -- the woman’s last day in Hiroshima -- and the film is beautiful and eerie in a somber, mostly deserted way, composed as a series of forboding black and white landscape through which the camera tracks with grave, funereal dignity. Resnais’ melancholy and dignified approach to the film’s visual texture conceals, and obscures, a fundamental moral problem with the picture: the movie’s theme is two parallel atrocities -- the death of the young woman’s lover and her public shaming in Nevers and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. But the equivalence of the two events seems highly questionable, even a bit vulgar. It is the accusation of facile vulgarity that Resnais and his screenwriter, the famous French novelist Marguerite Duras, labor to avoid by imposing a ponderous artistic purity on the material -- there are many tilted angles, desolate plazas and landscapes, corridors in Brutalist concrete hotels that look like anterooms to the Sahara desert, and close-ups of naked lovers, their eyes averted from one another Bergman-style in agonies of sorrow and anomie. The famous opening sequence of the film, intercutting almost unwatchable images of mutilation and death with close-ups of nude bodies, first covered in ash, then, mud, then skin slipping over skin in enormous fragmentary close-ups are justly famous, indelible, and terrifying. But the images make murder and disfigurement into an aesthetic subject and, ultimately, raise very difficult moral issues for the viewer -- is it ethical to use material of this kind as a counterpoint to a rather banal story of a one-night stand in an exotic city? The city of Hiroshima co-stars in this film with Nevers in France and the two locations give the film an extraordinary pictorial density and texture. Hiroshima, in particular, looks spooky, alien, half-abandoned -- there are huge open spaces through which cars zoom without the benefit of lanes or roads, covered arcades, and flimsy-looking pleasure districts full of garish lights in which the buildings seem to have been haphazardly constructed of Lego blocks, the central ruined dome of iron hovering over the vast bombed-out plazas like a black spider. Ultimately, the film argues, we are doomed to forget -- we forget our first loves, our great passions, and the horrors of war and atrocity are likewise forgotten. The grass grows over the torn earth. Scar tissue forms over lacerations. The film wisely takes no moral stance as to whether the dominion of oblivion over horror (and love) is a good or a bad thing -- it is just the way the world works. Emmanuelle Riva plays the French woman. At the start of her career, she made this movie about the risk of universal destruction -- we see her watching a ”Ban the Bomb” parade in her white nurse’s outfit, mournfully watching placards bearing images of mushroom clouds and mangled children carried in procession. In 2012, she appeared in Michael Haneke’s “Amour”, clearly a reference to the film that made her a star 53 years earlier. In Haneke’s equally grave, and terrifyilng, film, her role also concerns death and destruction, but no longer on an universal scale -- “Amour” is about senility and dying as the lonely fate of all of us who survive long enough to become old. It would be nice to draw a contrast between the young and vivacious Riva in Resnais 1958 film and the ruin that time has made of her in Haneke’s 2012 picture. But the contrast is unsupportable. Riva is one of those people who seems to have never been young. In “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, she already seems haggard, ancient, a survivor of unmentionable cruelties and savagery. Indeed, in some ways, she seems younger and more fiercely vibrant in the first half of Haneke’s film than she is Resnais’ famous picture made a half-century before.