January 10, 2022

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Grade: 55/100

Director: Alain Resnais
Stars: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada

What it's about. An influential French new wave film whose commercial and critical success led to Breathless (1960) and similar fare. Set in Hiroshima, Japan, 14 years after an atomic bomb was dropped on the city and killed tens of thousands of citizens. Additional tens of thousands survived but were physically devastated.

The movie opens with documentary-style footage from 1945 of Hiroshima survivors. But the narration is unexpected: a woman and a man discuss the event as if she is a tourist and he is her cult deprogrammer.

They are instead lovers. But not for long, since they are both married, and not to each other. They will soon return to their spouses, but are enjoying one last day together. She is a minor French actress, in Japan to appear in a film. He is a Japanese man, and apparently picked her up in a bar. For unexplained reasons, he speaks French fluently, and is so completely smitten with her that he follows her wherever she goes. Which is fine with her.

As the film progresses, it becomes less and less about Hiroshima and the bomb, and more and more about their great love, and how sad it is that it will soon end. We expect her to get on the plane to France, like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, but the film instead has an open ending with the two alone in a hotel room, right where we started.

We see flashbacks of their tragic pasts during World War II. The French woman, when she was young, had a red-hot affair with an occupying German soldier, which had her branded as a collaborator and led to her imprisonment in a cellar by her parents. Of course, the German lover dies in her arms, on the very day they were to run off together. To where, who knows. Meanwhile, the Japanese man lost his family when the A-bomb took out Hiroshima while he was serving overseas. They never discuss his military service, though no doubt it would have been of great interest to her if she was a real lover.

How others will see it. Hiroshima Mon Amour was feted at world film festivals throughout 1960. For example, it was nominated for Best Screenplay at the Oscars, won the UN Award at BAFTA, and won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. More than 60 years later, it has 30K user votes at imdb.com, a large total for an old black and white French language film. The user rating is an impressive 7.9 out of 10. Women over 45 grade it slightly higher than men over 45, 8.1 to 7.7.

The user reviews are all over the map. Most are favorable, but there are many negative reviews. Some are moralists who complain that the leads are adulterers. Some say the dialogue is pretentious twaddle. Others just say that it is boring, the most common negative one word review of all time for any movie.

How I felt about it. For all the tragic stories and early footage of ghastly war horrors, Hiroshima Mon Amour is really about two beautiful thirty-somethings who enjoy their languid yet obsessive romance. The cinematography features them touching each other, gazing into each other's eyes, and exchanging short, polite nothingisms.

I don't believe her backstory. I don't believe her neighbors cropped her hair, or her parents locked her in the cellar, or she went mad until one day she was just fine. I don't believe his back story either, because few men in the Japanese military during World War II ever returned home. And in 1959, almost no Japanese men spoke French.

But does it matter if their story isn't credible, or if their morality is suspect, or their dialogue is tedious. The cinematography is what counts, mostly focused on the attractive woman while her well dressed, patient, and persistent paramour is in her shadow.

A majority of people will enjoy the visuals and not care about the film's baggage. But it is the opposite for me. I see and hear all the baggage, and don't care about her cinematic show of sorrow while her lover adoringly dotes on her.