Hiroshima mon amour
When that great critic of realism Andre Bazin wondered whether montage was manipulative, as he preferred Renoir and Wyler to Eisenstein and Hitchcock, he saw that the longer take could give to the viewer a freedom of perceptual possibilities that a rigorous editing style would limit. We can think of an extreme and famous example. Kuleshov's experiments with a face. Take an impassive actor's expression and cut it to different things and the viewer believes they have seen a distinct emotion cross the visage. The cut between the actor and a baby suggests tenderness; between the actor and a bowl of soup, hunger; the actor and a person in a coffin, grief. People supposedly admired actor Ivan Mozhukin's great thespian skills and this "had a permanent impact on the theory of screen acting. It showed that audiences will read shots in terms of each other and therefore that a film actor...could allow the montage to suggest some of his or her emotions and thoughts." (How Movies Work) But Bazin often most admired in an actor their ability to immerse themselves in the extended shot and for the filmmaker to allow a degree of freedom within the image that was indebted to a reality from which it was extracted. "The unit of cinematic narrative in [Robert Rossellini's] Paisa is not the 'shot', an abstract view of a reality which is being analyzed, but the 'fact'. A fragment of concrete reality in itself multiple and full of ambiguity." (What is Cinema? Vol II) Editing for Bazin was often reducing these facts and making them unequivocal but limited. Kuleshov's experiment wished to show the mastery of the filmmaker, dictating how a viewer will view the image. Bazin wanted the long take to create the equivocal, to generate ambiguity.
Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour, is nothing if not a film incorporating the importance of montage, and yet it arrives at much of the uncertainty Bazin seeks. It was as though montage in the twenties and thirties could be a source of manipulation in European cinema, but became haunted in the post-war years by the consequences of propaganda: the rise of Naziism, the millions of deaths in the war, in the camps, in the Gulags. Resnais noted, speaking of death camp images that he would go on to show in his 1955 documentary Night and Fog: "I saw these images in May 1945. How could I forget?...I was a creature of France, like any other, and they shook me to the core." (Camera Historica) Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima mon amour's screenwriter, nursed her husband Robert Antelme back to some sort of health after he arrived from the camps: if she were to have fed him solids straight away he would have died, "his stomach lacerated by the weight of the food..." (La Douleur) How in such circumstances does one create images; what sort of ethical responsibility is involved? Perhaps not by assuming they could be pragmatically joined together for easy propagandistic or narrative purposes. They must be disjunctively presented all the better to generate complex and troublesome thoughts in the viewer.
We can see in the film's very opening frames. Two bodies covered in ash as they embrace become the silky, tanned torsos of the two lovers who will become the film's main characters: a French woman and a Japanese man. They have made love for the first time and she is to leave Japan in less than forty-eight hours. Their entangled bodies also possess tangled lives: they are both married and not unhappily so. However, what interests Resnais isn't an emotionally troubled tale of adultery, a sort of modernist Brief Encounter pushed a bit further due to more liberated times, but an affair that becomes entangled itself within the history of the two protagonists. If the film constantly absorbs into its form aspects that would usually be seen as extraneous to a film's telling, this is because Resnais reckons that stories should no longer be contained by the story, and the historical deemed peripheral, but that the feelings themselves are products of history and cannot be distinguished from them. In contrast to Casablanca (which a bar here is named after), history isn't an obstacle to their love affair but an intrinsic part of it.
When we later in the film see the couple once again in bed, they speak about Liu's (Eiji Okada) good fortune and the misery of Elle's (Emmanuelle Rive) earlier life. When twenty she had an affair with a German soldier; he was shot dead and she was confined to a basement in her home town of Nevers. If this lover had lived, if he weren't a German soldier, if he weren't deemed the enemy, Liu would never have met her. And by extension, if there had been no atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Elle wouldn't be in the city where she is playing a nurse in a film about the atrocity. He is happy that she is in the city; even if much unhappiness has allowed for it. Earlier in Hiroshima mon amour Elle asks if he was in Hiroshima when the bomb dropped - obviously not he says and she realises her foolishness. He was a soldier fighting for Japan, he says. Lucky for you, she replies, the relative good fortune of fighting in a war next to a citizen who becomes a victim of atomic annihilation.
While Bazin talked about the fact-image and how it shouldn't be limited by the brevity of the shot, edited together to construct a perception through disparate pieces of film, Resnais offers a counterfactual image. These are images that could easily have been other than they are just as Elle and Lui's lives could have been very different from how they have become. Resnais proposes that every image potentially has its counter-image and this helps explain the lengthy early section where Lui insists Elle has seen nothing in Hiroshima, nothing. For many minutes we see fictional and archive footage of the bombing but don't see the faces of our two central characters, who have thus far only been those tangled bodies with visages out of the frame. They are off-screen presences as we may wonder whether Elle has seen anything of Hiroshima, and what this might mean, and what the man means too when he says she hasn't done so. What does it imply to see an image, and Resnais might say that it cannot be assumed that a Kuleshovian shot or a Bazinian fact-image constitutes a showing that can be seen. In the Russian montage shots in October, Mother or Battleship Potemkin, the directors show how completely they can manipulate our perceptions. In Bazin's fact-image, he proposes the filmmaker must resist doing so, giving us as much information as the take can provide so that the viewer can work with the ambiguity and choose what to focus upon.
There are many great examples of this type of Bazinian shot in films by Jacques Tati, Robert Altman and Michael Haneke, just as there are assertive shot choices well-deployed in work for example by David Fincher or Roman Polanski. We don't see the head in the box in Seven, nor the devil child in the cot in Rosemary's Baby. We know because of the reactions in a variation of the Kuleshov effect. If the Russian directors realised they could offer an impassive expression and with the counter shot create a perceived clear emotion, numerous directors became well aware that the counter shot wasn't needed at all if you created an expressive reaction on the actor's visage. Filmmakers could refuse to show something and yet there wouldn't be any ambiguity because of the assertiveness with which they would show the reaction.
But back to Hiroshima mon amour. The film offers neither the long take ambiguity beloved by Bazin nor the categorical montage meaning we find in Fincher or Polanski. Resnais shows that it isn't an either/or; that you can create perplexity out of editing that leaves the viewer just as capable of interpretation as in the long take. At the end of the film, Elle says "I'll forget you. I'm forgetting you already." She is speaking to Lui who she will be several thousand kilometres away from soon enough, but the person she would be speaking about rather than talking to, is her German lover from the war. It is the presence of the Japanese lover more than his incipient absence that would appear to make her offer such a claim. His presence has helped invoke the other man in his absence. In an earlier moment, we see Elle looking in the bathroom mirror and she says, "in her youth in Nevers she had a German love." We see her speaking this line as she turns herself into the third person before slipping into the first person plural as she says they will go to Bavaria together. After, while she still looks in the mirror, we hear her thinking, "you were not quite dead yet." The lips aren't now moving; it is a voice in her head. Here we have a duplicated (mirror) image speaking in both the first and the third person, and Elle both talking to herself and thinking to herself. She is doing so partly because she has accessed feelings resembling a little those she once had for the German soldier.
Resnais has created this level of complication because of editing not despite it. He has shown us how deeply the past sits in the present as Elle has earlier been speaking to Lui of her affair during the war for the first time. This has been her secret shame and now it gets revealed in adultery and in the contrast between a historical atrocity and a personally amoral deed. She had an affair with a German soldier in occupied France; the Allies dropped an Atomic bomb on Japanese cities. Resnais isn't saying that these are equivalent acts but he is proposing that the juxtapositional can help us understand them. And editing is of course the art of juxtaposition.
When Lui insists early on that Elle has seen nothing in Hiroshima, nothing, he surely means that images of the destruction don't pass for witnessing. Yet he hasn't seen Hiroshima bombed either as he was elsewhere. However, he makes a point of saying his family had been in the city while it was attacked. It suggests emotionally he can understand what happened and that Elle can't. Yet as they get to know each other, as Elle starts to reveal her time in Nevers, he can see that she may understand an aspect of the bomb through her own humiliation, that she got what she deserved as her head was shaved, just as the Japanese got what they deserved as women would wake up in the morning with a clump of their hair lying on the pillow. The dubious personal morals of Elle that they speak of, meet with the national immorality of Japan as a defeated Fascist nation. Yet how dubious were the morals of the US and Britain who supported the bombing when it led to the devastation the film shows us?
These are astonishing conflations the film provokes (and none more so than in the film's title). But it couldn't have been easily achieved without accepting the importance of form the significance of finding editing procedures that would counter accepted conventions and discover new aesthetic possibilities. When we first see Elle and Lui, when Elle looks from the hotel room balcony to the bed and views Lui's arm, the film flashes back as we see the arm of a dead man in a similar position, and Elle kissing him. The flashback can often seem a misnomer; that most films don't flashback. They dawdle back, often spending many minutes in time past as the film illuminates events prior to the film's present chronology. Resnais proposes that time past for various reasons isn't simple to recall, and turns the flashback convention into an interrogation of Elle's psychology and the film's thematic. If Elle remembers her lover, is she also oddly forgetting him as though he should occupy a place in her nervous system rather than in her mind, and certainly not be verbalised into existence when she is with another lover far from her first, and hence what she calls her dubious morals.
But the film also asks what is Memory and thus Jacques Rivette and Godard were right to say in Cahiers du Cinema that, in Rivette's words, Resnais "is sensitive to the current abstract nature of the world...by juxtaposing with each abstraction another abstraction in order to discover a concrete reality through the very act of setting them in relation to each other." Godard concurs and says 'that's exactly the opposite of Rossellini's procedure..." But then Rossellini could be seen as a Bazinian realist; Resnais, a director complicating the question of montage
© Tony McKibbin