With Hiroshima Mon Amour, the great Alain Resnais takes what, in another director's hands, might have been a flat, ordinary tale of lovers and infuses it with such passion, such a culture shock, and such a particular narrative style that it is small wonder why this project has been revered for decades now.
To put it simply (even though this is far from a simple film), Hiroshima tells the brief tale of two new found lovers, a French actress known only as Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) currently filming a project in Hiroshima, and the handsome Japanese man, Il (Eiji Okada) she has met there. The film opens with the couple lying naked in bed, arms wrapped around one another. Il reminds Elle that she still hasn't really 'seen' anything yet in Hiroshima, as Elle counters with all the museum visits and sites she has visited in recent days. She argues that she does understand, through what she has seen, what exactly Hiroshima has gone through in recent history (I'm sure most of you are fully aware of the climax to the Pacific front in WWII). Their conversation is accompanied by images of said museums and tourist sites, but also with extremely graphic images of victims, both dead and alive, of the nuclear strike. The images are stunning, the dialogue poignant in setting up the characters, and the music, a light, almost playful melody played by flute and other instruments, jarring. The opening 10 minutes of Hiroshima Mon Amour are a superb example of storytelling and art house cinema, emphasis on the artistic aspect. Their conversation grows more casual, although no less interesting, as he presses her to reveal more of her past in Nevers (a town in France) and to stay with him in Hiroshima. She remains elusive and almost aloof in responding to many of his queries, which frustrates him to a certain degree.
From that point we witness Il begging Elle not to leave Japan once the filming of her scenes is complete. He has quickly, almost overnight, become infatuated with Elle and possibly fallen in love. Elle resists, although for reasons that she isn't fully elaborating on. Elle tries to stay away from Il (she is mightly attracted to him as well however) but he persists in seeing her again, always in an valiant attempt to seduce her more. Simple but well executed scenes ensue, but the real clincher, the master stroke painted by Renais is yet to come.
The film reaches newer heights still when, upon yet another invitation to see him before she leaves, Elle accompanies Il to a bar in the evening. It is there that she really opens up and tells her backstory in Nevers. Elle openly admits than during WWII she and a young German soldier a few years her elder, probably following the Nazi invasion of France, had begun a passionate affair. Given the circumstances, they naturally had to keep their love very secretive. However, they are eventually discovered. What happens after I do not wish to give away ( I have arguably given away enough already), but suffice it to say that the emotions of the characters, Il and Elle, as well as the methods Alain Resnais uses at his disposal to transmit them to the audience grow more and more intense, up until the story's climax.
Elle's telling of her love affair with the German soldier is the crust of the movie, but it cannot live without the reality of her current affair with Il, for as she recounts her tale, she substitutes the German lad for 'Il' when mentioning him. She was caught in a dangerous relationship back during the war, one that she arguably knew was dangerous and could not last long. More importantly, she was caught in a love with someone from another land, another culture. Perhaps other than the 'danger' aspect, Elle now finds herself yet again in a passionate affair with a man from a distant land, an affair that probably won't last. The parallels between these two relationships are gutting her insides. They are so gripping that she says 'you' to Il even though she is really talking about her former flame. She simultaneously fears and desires this new affair with Il. It has the potential to fulfill the love she once had with the German lad, a relationship with someone new and different, but certain elements of that past affair are discouraging her from embracing this current one. Everything, from the music, to the specific handling of the shots to the quality of Elle's narration, it all works sumptuously. Not only does Hiroshima Mon Amour have a strong story at its core, but it also looks great. Camera movements, angles and lighting were obviously chosen and executed with great care, showing us scenes and images in tantalizing and oftentimes teasing manner.
Both Emanuelle Riva as Elle and Eiji Okada as Il are stellar in their respective roles. Stuborn in her ways but hopelessly a romantic, Elle is a very multilayered character, and Riva derserves all the praise possible for bringing this character to life. Okada is very cool and handsome, but also, much like Elle, hopelessly romantic as well. Personally I'd like to give him special mention for delivering all his lines in a respectable French. It clearly isn't his native tongue, but he passes what must have been a very difficult test for him.
Anyone looking for a beautiful yet dark romance story need look no further. There are certainly others that would fit that description aptly, but Hiroshima Mon Amour, in this viewer's humble opinion, is certainly among the very best.