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TCM Imports - September 2018
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Hiroshima, Mon Amour

An art house sensation unlike any other, this groundbreaking depiction of cultural differences and the slippery nature of human memory was a major calling card for the late Alain Resnais, who made this debut feature after ten years of documentary shorts including the acclaimed Night and Fog (1955). In fact, this project originated as another documentary short (focusing this time on the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb on Hiroshima at the end of World War II), but he decided that there was no way to sufficiently address and convey the nature of that event in the intended format.

A solution arrived in the form of Saigon-born French writer Margeurite Duras, a prolific novelist and playwright who would go on to become a noted experimental filmmaker in her own right a decade later. Resnais himself had also started in other fields, most notably as an actor, but a career behind the camera was cemented with his 1948 short, Van Gogh, which picked up an Oscar for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel). His frequent focus on painters and musicians was an ideal match for Duras' screenplay, which presents a nameless French actress (Emmanuelle Rivia, a future Oscar nominee herself for Amour) and a married Japanese man (Eiji Okada) carrying on an extended conversation during a brief love affair while she shoots a film in Hiroshima.

The dual nationalities of the two characters was actually a matter of commercial necessity as the film was the first narrative feature collaboration between France (via distributor Pathé Films and production companies Argos Films and Como-Film) and Japan (via Daiei Studios, who would go on to the long-running Gamera and Zatoichi film series). Riva was essentially an unknown at the time, but she would soon become a familiar face in international films for decades ranging from Jean-Pierre Melville's Léon Morin, Priest (1961) to Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue (1993). A bit more seasoned was Okada, whose role here led to a string of notable titles like Woman in the Dunes (1964) and Antarctica (1983).

Perhaps less discussed but equally important are the collaborations among some of the other crafts on this film, including dual music composers courtesy of the great Georges Delerue (who would become a Truffaut regular as well) and the more experimental Giovanni Fusco, who would score several films for Michelangelo Antonioni. The cinematography was also the result of a pairing of Japanese cinematographer Michio Takahashi for some of its grittier documentary segments and the delicate, gliding camerawork of Sacha Vierny, who had been working with Resnais since Night and Fog and would go on to shot such films as Belle de Jour (1967) and many films directed by Peter Greenaway.

Despite or perhaps even because of its unorthodox narrative approach (including an innovative use of interspersed flashbacks to indicate bursts of memory), Hiroshima Mon Amour became a sensation upon its release and racked up a number of accolades including awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics, a BAFTA UN Award, and an Oscar nomination for Duras's screenplay. Most significantly, its screening out of competition at Cannes alongside The 400 Blows is usually regarded as the opening salvo in the French New Wave, which would become one of the most important film movements of the 1960s.

In fact, the term "new wave" was already part of the English-language critical parlance when Resnais's film opened in the United States in the spring of 1960, with The New York Times critic A.H. Weiler calling it "a complex yet compelling tour de force--as a patent plea for peace and the abolition of atomic warfare, as a poetic evocation of love lost and momentarily found, and as a curiously intricate but intriguing montage of thinking on several planes in Proustian style."

Among its fellow films in the French New Wave, Resnais's film would quickly become significant as a touchstone for what would become known as the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) members with stronger ties to art forms outside cinema (compared to the more internationally famous Cahiers du cinéma members). In addition to Resnais and Duras, other significant colleagues of the Left Bank would include Chris Marker and the married Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda.

Inspired by the creative fruit of working with a noted novelist, Resnais repeated the same feat with his next film, Last Year at Marienbad (1961), also shot by Vierny, which pushed the fragmentation of memory even further thanks to an audacious screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet. In fact, memory and temporal displacement would become fixtures in Resnais films for the rest of his career regardless of the screenwriter.

Hiroshima Mon Amour has since become a repertory mainstay, a staple of film schools, and a home video favorite, most recently with an immaculate restoration conducted in 2015. For that most recent edition via Criterion, New York Film Festival director Kent Jones noted that the film's refusal "to resist a comforting sense of definition fifty years after its release may help to account for Resnais's 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." Even divorced from its historic context and the intended postwar audience, viewers can still step into the distinct cinematic realm created by Resnais and Duras to appreciate its haunting snapshot of a meeting two people, two worlds, and two artists whose worked fused together in a flash for one indelible moment.

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