Alain Resnais DVD review – Hiroshima Mon Amour / Night and Fog
Out on DVD next week to coincide with a season of the director’s distinctive brand of cinema at the BFI, the two pioneering films that made Alain Resnais’ name in the 1950s and paved the way for the modernist French New Wave.
Hiroshima Mon Amour + Night And Fog
(Alain Resnais, 1959 + 1955)
What are memories made of? Alain Resnais tackles the 20th Century’s most appalling atrocities and concludes that, sadly for those present, you had to be there
A landmark in art-house cinema, Hiroshima Mon Amour pre-empted the freewheeling form, thematic fearlessness and heart-on-sleeve intellectualism of the French New Wave. But crucially, Alain Resnais neglected the Nouvelle Vague’s joie de vivre, giving this the semblance of a parody of everything you’ve ever hated about art-house cinema.
It’s certainly an ambitious film. A genuine French/Japanese co-production (check the credits, every job is handled by at least two people), freely mixing drama and documentary, Resnais’ multi-cultural romance deals with the affair between a French woman and a Japanese man in the spectre of one of the 20th Century’s most cataclysmic events. At heart, the film is asking us to never forget – just as the documentary-trained Resnais did for the Holocaust in this DVD’s companion-piece Night and Fog (more of which later). Yet the move into feature-length fiction, in an era where Bergman and Antonioni were asking difficult questions and refusing to find answers, provided Alain Resnais with a new remit. In Hiroshima Mon Amour, rather than tell us to forget, he prefers to wonder: forget what?
The key is that neither of these people – named only by the town they were born – were in Hiroshima during that fateful day in 1945. He (Eiji Okada) was at war, she (Emmanuelle Rivas) was in Nevers, France. But since she’s in Japan to act in a movie “about peace,” she’s taken on the Bono-esque presumption she speaks for the city. He, who at least lives in the city, knows better, and decides to teach – or punish – her by dredging up long-dormant memories of her youth as a Nazi-shagging village girl driven to madness by the contempt of her neighbours.
“It’s not too much of a stretch to wonder if Hiroshima Mon Amour was an inspiration for Hannibal Lecter’s mind games with Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs…”
There’s the germ of a brilliant idea here. Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to wonder if Hiroshima Mon Amour was an inspiration for Hannibal Lecter’s mind games with Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. There are two differences: the first (the good one) is that Alain Resnais’ bold, avant-garde editing drops in brief, impressionistic flashbacks to create a sensual, fluid back-and-forth between her past and present. Trouble is, the second difference is that the film remains fundamentally a conversation – and an infuriating one. These two are prone to navel-gazing like nobody else in the movies, and their pompous contemplation of memory, culture and meaning lays on the self-importance with a trowel, even before they start repetitively intoning the same phrases over and over.
The film doesn’t need this banality, when Resnais’ stark opening sequence deploys genuinely traumatic archive footage of H-bomb victims to remind us of what’s at stake. Throughout, there’s a tension between documentary and fiction, exemplified by Resnais’ use of the film she’s shooting to warn against trivialising real events. Resnais’ central premise – that we’re all tourists when it comes to knowing how other people feel – is strong. Sadly, his method is to portray that by suggesting that the solipsistic prison of Nevers’ own memories and experiences is on a par with the horrors of Hiroshima in 1945.
“For all his understandable ambivalence, Alain Resnais had nailed exactly how to confront the unimaginable in Holocaust documentary Night and Fog…”
The thing is, for all his understandable ambivalence, Alain Resnais had nailed exactly how to confront the unimaginable in Holocaust documentary Night and Fog. Only half an hour long, it is the most upsetting film in cinema, even with the caveat (written by Jean Cayrol, a survivor of the concentration camps) that “what hope do we have of truly capturing this reality?” Resnais’ method is simple: he films the abandoned shell of a camp, dissecting the architecture of hell, laying bare the function of each room with the same dispassionate tone with which they were built. There’s something almost graceful about the serene tracking shots Resnais uses…until the film shows the results of this factory.
The bucolic calm of the 1950s colour footage is intercut with archive black-and-white newsreel from the 1940s. Some was shot by the Nazis, most by the Allied troops who found the camps, but all of it tells the story in imagery that is tough to stomach. Tempting though it is to turn your head away, Resnais doesn’t flinch, and the montage accumulates in horror because there is no escape. Viewed in tandem, Hiroshima Mon Amour becomes Resnais’ post-traumatic stress relief from having to assemble Night And Fog. Certainly, the later film feels wracked with anguish, guilt and doubt about whether it is right even to show the hundreds of mutilated corpses with which Night and Fog makes its impact felt.
No, we can’t truly know what it was like to be there, but we can remember the facts – and Night and Fog is a stark reminder that, otherwise, only buildings remain. Hiroshima Mon Amour is the afterthought made by a filmmaker trying to justify and explain his art. But Night and Fog – appalling and necessary – needs no such philosophising. It exists only to document what happened. The rest is up to us.