The opening sequence of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour is perhaps one of the most memorable in the history of cinema, brutally depicting the pain inflicted on the people of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city.
The first ten minutes of the film might leave a first-time viewer with the impression that it’s a film about war, suffering and politics, intertwined with brief intermissions of romance. On a certain level, it is. It would be more accurate, however, to say that Resnais’s 1959 classic, his first feature-length film, is mainly about memory; the endless battle between the forces that compel you to remember, and those that tempt you to forget.
This year, the Cineteca di Bologna, the Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, in collaboration with Argos Films, have completed a new restoration of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and the Sixth Panorama of the European Film has brought the restored version to Cairo.
While most hardcore film fans have probably seen the film before, getting to view it in a movie theatre, restored to full quality, is an entirely different viewing experience.
The screening of the film in Al-Manial’s Galaxy Cinema was attended by the film’s script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot, who spoke about her experience working with Resnais and other famous filmmakers like Jacques Tati and Roman Polanski, and answered the audience’s questions about her long career in cinema as well as the film itself.
In Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) visits the city of Hiroshima twelve years after the end of World War II and the devastating nuclear attack, to shoot a film about peace. There, she meets a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada), and during their brief yet intense affair, they exchange stories about their experiences during the war.
One unique aspect about the film is that Resnais worked with two completely separate crews when filming in France and in Japan, in an attempt to emphasise the particularities of the two locations, portraying each in different shades and tones to highlight the singular identity of the city in which the scenes are being filmed. Baudrot was the only member of the crew on location in both countries.
“When filming the tracking shots in the streets of each city, Resnais would walk beside the grip himself, ensuring that the camera moved with the same rhythm in Nevers as it did in Hiroshima,” she said. “The best thing about the restoration is that it gives the image back its original sharpness and enables viewers to note the difference between the textures of black and white in the segments filmed in each country.”
Although Hiroshima, Mon Amour is widely considered a key work of the French ‘New Wave’, Baudrot doesn’t think it’s an accurate classification. Unlike Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and other icons of the movement, she said, Resnais’s camera movements were meticulously planned and calculated. “The ‘New Wave’ directors ran more freely with the camera; Resnais carefully studied his angles and the formation of each cadre,” she said.
The first half of Hiroshima, Mon Amour is a poetic homage to Hiroshima, in both its misery and resilience. As the events are seen through the eyes of the woman (she and the male character both remain unnamed throughout the film although they are credited as ‘Elle’ and ‘Lui’), she is the one who tells the man’s story, when she recounts the damage left behind by the attack, the way she visualises it through places she visits and people she meets in the city more than a decade later.
We realize that the man's pain is even deeper and reality harsher each time he interrupts her, insisting that she has "seen nothing in Hiroshima."
Elle proves that she, too, has witnessed her share of suffering, however, when she tells Lui her own tragic story from the war.
While the film addresses Hiroshima as a public disaster, Elle’s experience in the French city of Nevers is a personal one. She talks of how she fell in love with a German soldier when her country was still occupied, bringing shame and disgrace to her family and outrage to the townspeople, who branded her a collaborator.
Despite the humiliation she was put through, the one thing that pained Elle the most was how features of her beloved gradually started to fade from her memory with the passage of time, so that she could no longer conjure up his face in her mind.
“What Resnais wanted to say through this film, is that a woman, too, like a man, can have several lovers, but this is not the only thing the film seeks to accomplish,” Baudrot said as she remembered how Resnais used to hold daily meetings with the screenwriter, Marguerite Duras, during filming, and that he specifically asked her to write the parts where Elle speaks about her German soldier in a way that makes viewers uncertain whether the story is real or only takes place inside Elle’s head.
“In a way, the film is an attempt to document the inner workings of human imagination,” Baudrot said.
Elle's imagination leads her to relate the affection she develops towards Lui to the pain she felt after her previous affair in Nevers, and she battles with fierce bouts of indecision over what to do regarding their liaison. In one particular scene, as Lui follows Elle through the hauntingly empty streets of the city, they enter a nightclub called 'Casablanca', and for people who are familiar with the 1942 drama starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman the link is easy to spot.
“Resnais picked that particular nightclub because of its name,” Baudrot confirmed. “Casablanca, too, was a film about the Second World War and lovers that have to part.”
“I have fought… with all my strength, every day, against the horror of no longer understanding the reason for remembering. Like you, I have forgotten...” Elle sorrowfully tells her Japanese lover. It is in this sentence that the paradox the film rests upon lies, and it becomes ever more real to someone watching Hiroshima, Mon Amour after experiencing the extraordinary fluctuations brought about by the past three years in Egypt.
Presidents fell, young men died, eyes were lost, streets and squares were irrevocably transformed, barriers (both literal and metaphorical) were broken and erected again - and life went on. To the people who have been touched by Egypt’s revolution and what it stands for, forgetting the details - the sights, smells and sounds - of what to them are the greatest moments in this country’s history and in their lives, is terrifying. Yet the vivid memory of the blood, the anguish, the screams and the fear that often gave way to panic in mere seconds can prove too heavy a burden to be able to live with every day.
Like Elle, who needs to hold on to her memories with her German lover because they are the only verification that it was love and not an act of treason like everyone else believed, and yet must let go of the painful feelings of degradation and suffering associated with that period of her life in order to survive, many Egyptians are caught in a subconscious tug of war; they alternate between remembering and forgetting, in need -- yet inconsolably scared -- of both states.
“You’re destroying me. You’re good for me,” Elle recurrently tells her lover in the film, but, in truth, it is the fragments that stick to her memory she is speaking to; the bits and pieces she just won’t forget, which soothe and stab her at the same time.
10:30am, Wednesday 4 December, Galaxy Cinema, 67 Abdel Aziz Al-Saud St., Al-Manial
*Also screening in this year's Panorama of the European Film are recently restored versions of two other French classics: La Belle et La Bête and Le Joli Mai.