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[Note: This piece was first published by One Perfect Shot in 2015, but since the reviews I wrote for that site disappeared into the ether not long after it was bought by Film School Rejects, I will be re-posting them here.]

For many a budding cinephile, the cornerstones of ’50s European arthouse cinema can seem forbidding, if not unapproachable. Whether they’re Italian neorealist classics like Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. and Federico Fellini’s La Strada or weighty existential dramas like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries -- all of which have been doubly canonized by their inclusion in the Criterion Collection –- some films are intimidating simply because of the decades of baggage they’re loading down with. The most daunting one of all, however, may be 1959’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Criterion has given a Blu-ray upgrade just in time for the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which helped bring the Second World War to a swift conclusion.

The debut feature for director Alain Resnais, although it wasn’t originally intended to be, Hiroshima Mon Amour began life as a documentary short about the atomic bomb, which had triggered a bevy of nuclear-anxiety films –- ranging from sober nonfiction treatments to sci-fi/horror quickies –- over the previous decade. After burning through a number of potential collaborators, including fellow Left Bank documentarian Chris Marker, Resnais eventually approached novelist Margeurite Duras and proposed moving the bomb to the background of a work of fiction, making it ever-present in the characters’ lives but no longer the primary subject. She responded with an enigmatic love story between a French actress and a Japanese architect who have an affair while she’s in Hiroshima to shoot an anti-war film and pack a lifetime of passion into the scant 24 hours before her departure.

Never identified by name, the actress and architect are played by relative newcomer Emmanuelle Riva, who had primarily been a stage actress, and Eiji Okada, who had been acting in films -– including a 1953 Japanese drama simply entitled Hiroshima -– since the beginning of the decade. Making an indelible impression in her first leading role, Riva –- recently a Best Actress nominee at the Academy Awards for 2012’s Amour -– brings a haunted quality to her performance as the time she spends with her new lover gives her fleeting reminders of her first, forbidden love with a young German soldier she planned to elope with as the war in Europe drew to a close. For his part, Okada is mostly impassive, a man defined not by where he was when Little Boy was dropped on his hometown (i.e. somewhere in the Pacific fighting the Allies), but rather by where he wasn’t.

Before the audience is introduced to them as individuals, Resnais shows Riva and Okada embracing in extreme close-up, the specter of nuclear fallout conjured up by the glittery dust they’re showered with. The first 15 minutes of the film juxtaposes these images of their sweaty, groping bodies with elegant gliding shots captured by Resnais’s Japanese cinematographer, Takahashi Mikio, in a Hiroshima hospital and war museum, as well as harrowing scenes culled from vintage newsreels and the 1952 drama Children Of Hiroshima. Following Duras’s Oscar-nominated screenplay to the letter, these are overlaid with the lovers’ disembodied voices as Riva recites what she knows about the city and Okada repeatedly rebuffs her, saying, “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” These sorts of echoes and repetitions recur throughout the film, even when it becomes more of a conventional narrative, albeit one with a radical sense of temporal dislocation.

The heart of Hiroshima Mon Amour is reached when Okada urges Riva to tell him about her wartime lover, which allows Resnais to provide context for the unexplained cutaways sprinkled throughout the first half of the film as Riva is bombarded with shards of her painful memories. Shot in the French city of Nevers by his frequent cinematographer, Sacha Vierny, these flashbacks take up a relatively small percentage of the film’s running time, but they include some of its most potent images and are key to understanding Riva’s character, if indeed that is even possible. As past and present, dead and living, and German and Japanese become conflated in her mind, Okada’s prediction that he’ll “think of this story as of the horror of forgetting” is answered by hers that they’ll “probably die without ever seeing each other again.” Luckily, fans of Hiroshima Mon Amour have the option of seeing it as many times as they choose.

Special Features:

First and foremost, the best feature of Criterion’s Blu-ray is its presentation of the 4K restoration done in 2013. It also carries over most –- but not all –- of the supplements from its previous DVD release, including an essay by film critic Kent Jones, interviews with Resnais and Riva recorded decades apart, and an informative commentary by film critic Peter Cowie, who places Hiroshima Mon Amour in the context of when it was made and talks about its continuing influence. New to this release are interviews with film scholar François Thomas, who discusses the film at length, and music scholar Tim Page, who talks about Resnais’s use of the music of Giovanni Fusco and Georges Delerue. Lastly, there’s a featurette about the challenges associated with restoring a 54-year-old film shot on two continents by two different cinematographers on two different kinds of film stock.

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Craig J. Clark

July 2017

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