Bwecommendation: Hiroshima mon amour
In Resnais’s classic, ephemerality is beautiful, even life-saving.
By Samia Menon
Each week, a Blue and White writer pens an essay about a book, movie, painting, album, or some other work they find interesting and relevant. This is an extension of our monthly Bwecommendations column, in which staffers suggest timely things to read, watch, and listen to. To pitch a Bwecommendation, email email@example.com.
At 11:00 p.m. on a Saturday night not too long ago, my laptop faded to black, revealing the splinters on the screen and the reflection of a face that had been there many times before. Usually, the moment would be brief, and I, empowered by the end of midterms and a week-long spring break to come, would cheerfully move on to the next film or YouTube video or article. Instead, I entered the empty kitchen in the house I had returned to over one year earlier, when the world went still. I put a Minute Maid-orange kettle on and waited until the water bubbled and screamed.
The 1959 French-Japanese film Hiroshima mon amour, directed by Alain Resnais and written by Marguerite Duras, follows a fleeting affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect who confront the powers of memory, time, place, illusion, and love while coming to terms with the tragedies of their pasts. Throughout the film, the female protagonist, known simply as Elle (French for “she”), desperately avoids attachments, afraid of the hurt each inevitable ending will bring. Still, the professions of love from Lui (French for “him”) only grow stronger—he implores her to stay, weaving with her through the city lights and waning hours.
The night leads to a tea parlor, where, between drinks, gasps, and exchanges with Lui, Elle relives the moment she lost her first love, a German soldier in World War II. As she oscillates between past and present, Elle recalls facing cold nights in the family cellar, an extended period of insanity, and scorn from the anti-Nazi community in her hometown of Nevers. She remembers when her parents banished her from the village indefinitely. Hurting, she looks at Lui and realizes with a mixture of relief and horror that there are details—her lover’s face, for example—that she is beginning to forget.
While she is terrified of losing her memory, this small death of a former self is the very thing that enables Elle to continue living. To vividly remember is to become trapped in a time and place that no longer exist, to remain entombed in that cold cellar in Nevers. The lights of Hiroshima blink on, the Ota continues to flow as the Loire does in France, and the couple begins wading again through the night. Lui assures Elle that he will never leave, yet they both know she will go. Loss will come. As time’s passage urges them onward and apart, the couple faces that too-familiar question: How can we possibly move on?
There is no great story to our lives, only scattered vignettes. Hiroshima ends with the couple holding each other close in Elle’s room in the New Hiroshima Hotel. Both characters have lived their ostensible fairy-tale endings—they’re both married to other people—but they remain restless, and they readily admit to frequent hankerings for fleeting affairs like the one they’ve just shared. Elle declares that Lui’s name is Hiroshima, and he gives her the title of Nevers. As Lui tells it, these are the places that they became themselves, even if, eventually, “we will no longer remember the names of the things that bind us.”
The film is not a tragedy. The final scene is quiet and firm, portraying the end of a romance as a routine sadness with no sweeping conclusion. Hiroshima reminds us to kneel at the altar of impermanence, to embrace endings in a way we couldn’t before. It evokes the thesis of BoJack Horseman, delivered by Diane Nguyen in the series finale: “Life’s a bitch, and then you keep living.”
Resnais was heavily influenced by the Japanese concept of mono no aware, or “the recognition of beauty in the ephemeral,” a prominent theme in the films of Yasujirō Ozu. There is a faint sorrow to mono no aware, born of the heaviness that often accompanies transience. The beauty of Elle and Lui’s affair, of childhood, of a summer, of the sound of a song in an empty shopping mall comes in part from the knowledge that the experience will never happen again—that its discreteness makes it not just special, but aesthetically remarkable. It was lost, and it was lived, and that is okay.
When I came back to the suburbs of Cleveland, now over one year ago, I checked on the daffodil bulbs in my family’s yard, tracing the thick green blades as they began to emerge from the ground. Now, they’re here again, parting the soil with the strength that the Ides of March always brings. In a few weeks, the flowers will come, briefly, just so perfect for just so long. Many of us have been reliving the same day, over and over, living and changing and remembering. As the months go on and familiarity returns, know that we must find some space to forget. After a while, I think tomorrow will come.
When we taste a moment’s adrenaline, we do not know how it will mold us. Still, there are certain experiences whose long-term effects feel certain. Every era comes to an end. The end of a hard time brings joy, but hesitance will linger like a stream on stone. The end of a romance is cold, but it allows you to feel more deeply than before, to carve new capacities in your chest. A long time from now, the Ota, the Loire, the Hudson, and the Cuyahoga will run dry, but the land will retain the impression of the water that once flowed. Now, as this pandemic prepares to leave us with our own tragedies and heartaches, we are feeling things we will forget: tight chests, empty barrels of loss, intractable frustration. We don’t know what the changes will be—only that they will be fundamental. Lui is correct in his assertion that he will never leave Elle, though his features may blur in her memory: the tears he watched roll down her face in Hiroshima have carved their riverbeds on her cheeks.
There’s a delicate balance to strike when watching Hiroshima. Though the extended opening scenes of harrowing nuclear damage to the city’s fabric make clear the film’s anti-war stance, images of burning hellscapes suddenly turn to tour buses of laughing lovers and smiling guides. The setting illuminates a simile between the radiation that still pervades the physical city and trauma’s enduring effects on its people. While the past’s grip on our minds loosens over time, as atoms quietly decay, it permanently deforms our present.
Unfortunately, Resnais uses the residents of Hiroshima to embellish the landscape, in parades or on rooftops, propping them up as symbolic devices rather than illuminating them as characters with subjectivities and experiences. It can feel as though their tragedies are trivialized in comparison to Elle’s loss in France. Even Lui only briefly describes the impact the loss of his family in Hiroshima had on his psyche, and the film exclusively centers on Elle and her struggles with nearly no mention of Lui’s difficult past.
Still, to a discerning audience, Hiroshima mon amour serves as a mirror for all of us: The characters’ names are never mentioned, the questions are broad, the nightscapes are stark. There are striking symbols, stray words, scintillating silences, blank stares, and quiet rooms. It’s a film for anyone who occasionally finds themselves lingering in illusion or alternate reality—which now, I believe, is all of us. In every moment lies a story, in every set a message, in every action a purpose. Nothing we witness sits idle. Once the film ends and the screen fades to black, know that summer will come, just like morning in Hiroshima.