The Camera as Our Imagination: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

By Paul Risker.

Alain Resnais and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) – two names forever locked in an embrace; the latter a defining and resounding heartbeat within the filmmaker’s cinema. Alongside Last Year in Marienbed (1961), Resnais was the creator of cinematic or narrative labyrinths that liberated filmic storytelling, and furthered attention of its propensity for abstraction. Scorsese spoke specifically of Resnais’ compatriots François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard as liberating voices and inspirations for narrative filmmakers, with specific mention of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). He said: “What I loved about those Truffaut and Godard techniques from the early sixties was that the narrative was not important. You could stop the picture and say: ‘Listen, this is what we’re going to do right now – oh, by the way, that guy got killed – and we’ll see you later.’” (Christie 2003: 151) But one should not be too hasty in dismissing Resnais’ contribution to any such narrative liberation. Hiroshima Mon Amour’s adulterous love affair between French actress Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) and Japanese architect Liu (Eija Okada) possesses as much of a tendency for visual flare as Truffaut’s tale of love and friendship, and pre-dated the latter by three years.

The opening of Hiroshima Mon Amour, with its nonchalant piano notes accompanying the abstract shots of the male and female bodies threaded together, uses image and sound to create a striking initial impression. The pictorial and musical presence unfolds to create a sense of the visionary force that Hiroshima Mon Amour represented in a revolutionary and fevered period of film history. On the continent, where a new kind of art house cinema had been forged through Italian Neo-Realism, cinema was on the cusp of the French New Wave explosion. Meanwhile across the channel Michael Powell was about to unintentionally bring his career to an abrupt end with Peeping Tom (1960), a film too lurid for the then contemporary British audience. While the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock would dance with his audience with Psycho (1960) – progressing the evolution of the burgeoning Slasher sub-genre (or, as many have argued, inventing it) – Powell would assault sensibilities and expose the dark underbelly of British society. The sheer sense of feeling of Hiroshima Mon Amour encapsulates the ethos of the time. While young writers and cineastes such as myself witness this change in retrospect, we are left only to imagine what it must have felt like to the contemporary audience living through this transitionary period. And yet Hiroshima Mon Amour is emblematic of how, in spite of revolution and a new or alternative future, cinema would remain retrospective.

Hiroshima 02Resnais’ masterpiece, recently restored by Studiocanal on Region 2, offers an intriguing presentation of the influence of the past. Riva and Okada possess the frame with an almost theatrical style of acting, in which the unnatural laughs, smiles and big sweeping gestures are reminiscent of a classical Hollywood style. Yet this is combined with interactions, words and glances that possess a genuine and natural edge which serve to counterbalance convention on one hand, and the future on the other, the theatrics of film and the authenticity or imitation of real life that concerned these new film movements. And within Hiroshima Mon Amour one can see Resnais perhaps in his own way if not merging, then creating an association between film (acting) and literature (words). There are those moments in which one senses the emphasis he places on the words in which the image and performances seek to capture their soulful intent. As in literature the prose comes ahead of our imagining, and the images of Hiroshima Mon Amour are not telling a narrative in the traditional sense; rather they are trying to pictorially represent the words with a conscious intent in if not all, but specific moments. Within Hiroshima Mon Amour the camera actively becomes our imagination.

Yet through the dialogue Resnais uses gender as a means to embody a contrast between two states of mind. First we have the “woman,” the maternal of Mother Nature (in this masculinist gaze) versus the harsh and rational male, who strips back the “sentimentality” to reveal what he conceives to be honesty. Hiroshima Mon Amour stands as a testament and record of the suffering that was endured from the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, and whose pictorial and musical playfulness offset by the penetrating images of suffering have the propensity to provoke a sense of confusion as to how one should react to the film. This is especially the case in the early portion where Resnais strikes both an emotional and a psychological nerve that reverberates as we slowly become entranced and immersed in the narrative. In one beautifully phrased moment Riva’s words of how such suffering could be an unreal nightmare contemplate the response to human wickedness, in which we don’t deny its occurrence, but express a struggle to comprehend it – a collision between our humanism and acceptance of the human capacity for wickedness. Her words are met by her lover’s calm and carefree contrarian nature (at least in these early moments), in which he questions her deep-rooted empathy. This is born out of her maternal nature which we will come to learn is a tragic one in which the oppressive nature of people and events injure and scar the purity of experience of the individual, therein creating personal specters. Hiroshima Mon Amour offers an evocative reflection on the power of the present over the past, and while the latter is remembered, moments of such significance slip away. But Resnais is not so naïve as to believe time heals all wounds; rather he believes that while the bleeding can be staunched and the pain numbed, old wounds can always be reopened with present experiences that act as a catalyst to remember the past.

With Resnais’ attention to the three dialects of filmic language: the pictorial, musical and verbal, Hiroshima Mon Amour obviously exists as poetic cinema. And of course it belongs to a phase of Resnais’ career in which he regularly worked poetically. However, poetry is not wholly concerned with telling or constructing a narrative, but rather creating aesthetic pictures in the mind – its focus or intent to conjure up descriptions. Whereas traditionally the story was seen as a constructed narrative by the filmmaker, within this revolutionary phase of cinema one can almost see film transforming into a structural object for personal contemplation. And between the shots of Hiroshima Mon Amour, the pauses and silent moments reveal a contemplation within its very fabric. Hardly a tightly woven narrative, the film is open to contemplation and introspection first by Resnais and his collaborators, and then the audience. And if an individual film is merely a chapter of an episode in the lives of its characters, then Resnais’ omission of a beginning and an end is meticulous craftsmanship. For he only permits us to see the approach of the closing moments and earlier the events proceeding the opening moments. And in doing so he created storytelling with a sense of synchronicity.

Resnais shone bright in the early part of his career before lessening in the latter part. If the early masterpieces announced his revolutionary arrival, it would be unreasonable to expect him to continue at such a level without becoming self-indulgent or self-congratulatory. Either way Resnais was perhaps destined an unenviable fate. What we see is the natural light of Resnais’ cinema lessening, but even in the latter stages of his career there was an infusion of that feeling that was unique to his cinema alone.


Christie, Ian (2003), Scorsese on Scorsese, London: Faber and Faber.

Hiroshima Mon Amour was re-released in the UK on Blu-Ray and DVD by StudioCanal earlier this year.

Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.