Thursday, October 30, 2014


(NOTE: Alain Resnais died earlier this year.  To me, that still counts.  May he rest in peace, and now let's remember this film):

"Sometimes we have to avoid thinking about the problems life presents. Otherwhise we'd suffocate."

This movie is beautiful, not because it shows a love that can last but because it shows how fleeting love and life and everything is - that, and how good it is to hold on to it. The late Joan Rivers said pretty succinctly once, "life sucks, and if you don't enjoy every good moment, then you're a fool." The characters in Hiroshima mon Amour aren't fools. They've been through hell, and they aren't quite sure how to enjoy the good moments, or if they can. All they have are memories.

It's interesting to note that in this film it's not really so much about the man's memories. We find out he's been in the war, he was fighting in it, but that's it. Maybe Resnais didn't want to stoke those flames of anti-Japanese sentiment (in 1959 it was either still there or had receded perhaps). The real focus here is about the malaise of living in a world where death is all around - that and madness. It's mostly about the woman then, and of course the film was written by a woman, an acclaimed writer (Margeurite Duras), and it's about this woman's memories for the most part mixed in with that of Hiroshima.

The first ten minutes actually is presented mostly like a companion piece to Resnais previous masterpiece, Night & Fog. That film, if you remember (no pun intended), was about the horrors of the holocaust shown in montage. Hiroshima gets the same treatment, and we see mostly the bodies laid to waste, the victims who were left with scars and mutations and radioactive treatment. The narration makes it compelling on an other level as the woman voice says what she saw, and a male voice responds "You saw nothing."

Is this about one experience over another? It can't be the character Emmanuelle Riva plays, right? She is still in Nevers, the French town which has an alliterative touch with a character sometimes saying 'Nevers again'. Is it her, or her in another format? The third person instead of the first? And this comes with editing going between the shots of Hiroshima devastation and the couple in bed, close shots, their skin wet with sweat (this after the very first shot of the skin in ash). If this ten minute sequence doesn't suck you in with its stark poetic touch, the ache for loss and power of witness revealed with then and there, just stop watching the movie.

What most of the movie about isn't quite about Hiroshima, at least up front and center... well, after a certain point. Certainly in the first half Riva's character Elle is in Hiroshima for a reason, as an actress she is in a (good) propaganda movie about "Peace", and most intriguing is how this brings this couple of Elle and the Japanese man she's having an affair with, Lui, closer together as he has to get her out of the way of the "actors" marching along.

There's so much depth with the atmosphere around them that it's touching and so effective how Resnais makes it about this couple. And few things are as effective in movies of this period as Riva as an actress. I'd only known of her from the 2012 movie Amour - and that I knew she was in this movie most famously. She's beautiful in the role, but her beauty isn't that of a "STAR" ala, I dunno, Brardot or even Anna Karina among French stars of the period. Riva is like a woman you might meet on the street, and you could fall in love with and have children with. And behind being a naturally attractive person is an actress who delivers so strong with this character - this character who has this world of pain that she's buried deep.

It's ironic, perhaps most poignantly so then, that the Japanese man doesn't tell his story of war horrors (who knows if he has them, perhaps being Japanese he is too reserved to reveal them), but it's this woman's war story. She mentions at some point madness is like "Intelligence", and that it's hard to explain how it comes or people get it. It's just there. Why does she go so mad? She says she had a love, the ideal one, and then he went off to fight in the war and she went nuts... How so? Perhaps it's said, but it doesn't matter as much as the sensory details of her experience. Being in that cellar. Clawing at the walls. Eating the dry blood. Being THERE with the short-hair and then trying to escape. 

This is aching, evocative cinema of a high order, especially in that mid-section where Liu plies Elle with liquor at a restaurant, and Elle get so far into it that he has to smack her to bring her out of it. He's not even abusive, it's simply that she gets it at that moment (also, the period, sad to say, maybe now he'd do something else). But what makes this even better as a classic tale of love and loss and bewilderment is when Elle walks around Hiroshima in the middle of the night. She knows she can't stay, and Liu does as well (he's married too, his wife somewhere in the hills or something, it's Brief Encounter 2.0 of course). 

But she doesn't want to go. She now has THIS memory to contend with. And he does too. There's so much sadness between them that, if you're right there with the characters, and the way Resnais paints them it's realistic but also poetic in equal measure, which is so hard to pull off it's hard to tell if he did it in the next film, Marienbad, which is also about memory and loss but is more... shallow, perhaps?

This is about the loss of a civilization, but we see in this opening ten minutes, in part in a museum, that life goes on (or it doesn't for those who are already gone or about to die), and yet life and death and madness can happen on an intimate, small scale as well. It's a companion to Brief Encounter, but also to Lost in Translation (like the greater Aunt to it or something) in depicting people trying to find their places in the world. By keeping it as honest as possible, between Riva revealing her characters pain and (at times) happiness and love, and yet by the late Resnais letting Duras bring some dialog that could be confusing for those not keeping up - watch how characters use the word 'you' at times, mostly Elle - it brings it to a whole other level. I love this movie.

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