Alain Resnais (1959)
The word became flesh—and then through theologians it became words again.
SO SAID KARL BARTH, one of the great theologians of the twentieth century. Something similar can be said of films—scriptwriting becomes cinema, then through essayists it becomes writing again. And so here I am, a filmmaker, writing about films which I believe transcend the written word. But I have a long history with, and deep affection for, both theology and criticism; the point of them both, of course, is that while theology is not God and journalism is not cinema, they are human tools we use to better understand and experience the ineffable.
French critics of the fifties and sixties were uniquely concerned with the fundamental question encapsulated by André Bazin’s book series What Is Cinema? I answer that question for myself in different ways at different times. I often distinguish movies from films, the former being made as a conscious manipulation of the audience, the latter with a trust and expectation that the audience will interact with their own thoughts, feelings, and inferences of meaning. And while I love and make movies, my first love will always be films. And of the many films I have come to love, a small handful I love in purely personal terms, divorced of objective analysis, because they fuse so deeply with my own experience during certain seasons of my life. The latest film to burn itself into me this way is Alain Resnais’s beguiling Hiroshima Mon Amour.
Set in the Japanese city of Hiroshima fourteen years after it was A-bombed, the film defies any prior narrative structure and can justifiably be said to lack any real story at all. We watch two lovers—a visiting French actress and a Japanese businessman—as they are drawn into a two-night affair. The beginning of the film is a documentary-style production-within-a-production about the devastating effects of Hiroshima’s nuclear holocaust. During the war, the Japanese man had been away fighting for his country while the woman was in Nevers, France, falling madly in love with a German soldier who would only come to die in her arms. More than a decade later, the two meet in a café, spend the night together, then tell each other they are currently happy with their spouses. Neither seems particularly bothered by their mutual infidelity, nor does it seem as if such affairs are uncommon for them. But the film has nothing to say about marriage or adultery—the lovers and their spouses are never even given names.
What then happens in Hiroshima Mon Amour is that this chance encounter deeply dislodges both the man and the woman from their former selves—the Japanese man because of his unexpectedly powerful feelings of longing and love for the woman, and the woman because of how the man unexpectedly draws out long-buried and profoundly painful memories of her past. They talk at length about their own erupting emotions, sometimes while lying in each other’s arms, sometimes walking the mesmerizing nighttime city streets, and sometimes sitting in a bar drinking heavily to mitigate their mutual anguish. The film uses an unprecedented free-form structure that blends past and present, evoking constant questions about the nature of memory. How and why do we remember what we remember, and also forget what we forget?
This is a deeply empathetic film, spellbinding and hypnotic with gorgeous black-and-white photography, counterintuitive score, and powerful close-ups of the couple’s emotional anguish. There are layers of beauty here, but what hooks me deepest is the raw honesty. I understand and relate to the experience of these people in agony, wrestling with overwhelming emotions and painful pasts—things too big to be reckoned with in isolation. Strangers have at times unexpectedly dislodged me from my old self when I came to love them, and even more so if they left—sometimes through death—incinerating my sense of self with the nuclear blast of true love and loss.
A signature line in the film has taken on two different meanings for me at different times. Near the beginning of the film, and then again near the end, the woman tells the man, “You’re destroying me. You’re good for me.” When I first saw the film in graduate school, and when I revisited it again two years ago, I understood that line to be an expression of her tortured inability to separate from him or to remain with him, as either choice was too painful to accept. Rewatching Hiroshima Mon Amour again this year, I now understand her line not so much as an expression of inner conflict, but as her honest and grateful acknowledgement of the transformative power of their unforeseen human collision and separation. When someone comes along who unexpectedly shatters my currently constructed self, in time I am re-formed into someone else. Hopefully someone better. You’re destroying me. You’re good for me.
Scott Derrickson is a director whose films include Doctor Strange, Sinister, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.