The Film Within A Film in Hiroshima mon amour

Alain Resnais’ dialectical unity of contrasts

Elle pets a white kitten while Lui tries to talk to her.
Image from

the synopsis of her screenplay for Hiroshima, mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959), Marguerite Duras explains the decision to film a love story in Hiroshima.

Why choose Hiroshima over any other place in the world?

The question might well have remained rhetorical, but Duras offers the following justification for the film’s setting:

Between two people as dissimilar geographically, philosophically, historically, economically, racially, etc. as it is possible to be, Hiroshima will be the common ground…where the universal factors of eroticism, love, and unhappiness will appear in an implacable light.

Duras’ answer to this question, at least in the context of her short synopsis, seems to be: this film needs to take place in Hiroshima because the love story between the French woman (Emanuelle Riva) and the Japanese man (Eiji Okada) would seem “banal” or “commonplace” in any other location.

Duras’ comment implies that because her screenplay is set in Hiroshima, a city that has come to be imbued with social significance since the end of World War II, an otherwise simple love story will reach a new level of complexity.

Because the French woman is “named” Nevers and the Japanese man is “named” Hiroshima in the final scene of the film, their affair is a metonymic analogy for the “East” falling in love with the “West”.

Duras is clear about the intended focus of the film:

Their personal love story…always dominates Hiroshima.

Yet despite Duras’ proclamation, it is the woman’s story — her painful memories and subsequent revelation of her past trauma to the Japanese protagonist — that is the primary focus of the film.

Elle’s personal story dominates the narrative of the film so that the underlying allegory — the story of the “East” falling in love with the “West” and vice versa — can be propped up and highlighted.

In a documented conversation that took place between the Cahiers du cinéma critics in July of 1959, Jacques Rivette notes that Hiroshima, mon amour resembles “a unity of contrasts, a dialectical unity.”

Later in the same conversation, Rivette defines what he means by the term “dialectic” more precisely:

…dialectic — a movement which consists in presenting the thing and at the same time an act of distancing in relation to that thing — in order to be critical — in other words, denying it and affirming it.

While Rivette’s observations echo those of other critics, his thought process reveals a slightly more nuanced idea: Resnais’ obsession with the fragmentation of narrative unity allows him to take a distanced critical stance.

Rivette makes a further nuanced yet essential point: even though the narrative of Hiroshima is fragmented and splintered, the pieces that form the overall narrative are capable of being assembled into a coherent or (quasi-coherent) picture, much like a jigsaw puzzle.

Although this point might sound trivial, not every critic would agree that there is “unity” to be found in Resnais’ narrative.

Rivette’s use of the term “dialectic” in reference Resnais’ aesthetic style implies more than simply “conflicting” or “working in two separate directions simultaneously.”

Rivette proposes that Resnais chooses this dialectical style because it allows him to appear falsely objective.

This false objective style tends to make us, the viewers, feel as if we are watching “real world” events, as opposed to events that have been contrived by the director.

By having Emanuelle Riva’s character play the role of an actress in the film-within-the-film, which, not coincidentally deals directly with the Hiroshima bombing and the resulting peace marches, Resnais avoids potential political backlash.

Furthermore, because the viewer of Resnais’ film is distanced from the peace-march — the march is only occurring in the film-within-the-film — the viewer is even more apt to fall prey to the illusion that Resnais is not commenting on the Japanese people’s response to the Hiroshima bombing.

These dialectical tactics, again, allow Resnais to appear neutral, even if he is not.

Why Resnais chooses not to directly broadcast a political stance is a larger issue that relates back to cinematic style, and to the particularly sensitive time period in which the film was released.

How he manages to “comment without commenting” on the politically volatile situation in Hiroshima during the Cold War period is a more interesting and fruitful point of departure.

The peace-march scene that Rivette cites is nicely illustrative of Resnais’ indirect style.

When Lui finds Elle at the film shoot, she appears sad and thoughtful. Despite Lui’s efforts to convince Elle that he is in love with her, and that she must not return to Paris, she is skeptical about the possibility for any future contact.

Instead of responding to the Japanese man’s pleas directly, Elle strokes a white kitten that seems to have appeared out of nowhere, looks up towards the sky and remarks:

On dit qu’il va faire de l’orage avant la nuit. [They say there will be a storm before night].

In the very next shot, the sky covers most of the frame while the heads of the “protesters” appear to pop up from below, into the frame. The signs that they carry are powerfully critical of the West:

Il est regrettable que l’inteligence (sic) politique de l’homme 100 fois moins développée que son inteligence (sic) scientifique nous prive à ce point d’admirer l’homme. [It is unfortunate that we cannot admire man, whose political intelligence is 100 times less developed than his scientific intelligence].

Despite the powerful messages that they carry, the faces of the extras in the fake peace-march are blank and expressionless, as if they are unaware of the magnitude of their actions. The misspelling of the word “intelligence” further emphasizes the unnatural quality of this supposed political manifestation.

French language and culture, we realize, may have been relatively unfamiliar to the Japanese extras that were supposedly taking part in an “international film about peace.”

One extra in particular, a Japanese man who has been made-up to look as though he has been severely burned, watches the parade pass by with no readable expression, seemingly unaware of the emotional power that his appearance emanates.

This strong sense of artificiality is confirmed several moments later, when, after filming the long line of “protesters” for several minutes, the camera pans over, and a large dolly appears carrying a camera, a director, and his assistants.

In case we might have forgotten for a moment that we are watching the making of a film within the larger film, this shot is an abrupt reminder.

This entire scene works not only dialectically, as Rivette observed, but on a multitude of levels:

  1. At the beginning of Resnais’ film, the documentary footage mixed into the diegesis creates uncertainty about which images are “true” and which images have been “constructed” by Resnais to appear true.
  2. Now, we are faced with a scene that appears “documentary-like,” though we realize, at the same time, that it is part of Resnais’ diegesis, and therefore not true.
  3. Not only is this scene not “true;” it is not even meant to be “occurring” within Renais’ diegesis. This scene is supposedly “occurring” within the diegesis of another director, who is not really a director at all, but an actor in Resnais’ film.

Thus, the Japanese extras in Resnais’ film are playing extras in the other director’s film, now three times removed from being actual participants in the peace march.

As a result, their appearance is zombie-like, and they seem, at least within the context of Resnais’ film, to be almost completely detached from the reality of their situation. This scene is a decisive example of Resnais’ self-reflexive style of filmmaking.

Despite these multiple layers of artificiality and zombie-like extras, the scene remains powerful because it functions symbolically and allegorically.

The white kitten, for example, can be read as a symbol of innocence and vulnerability, while the looming storm and threatening sky in the next shot suggests that the worst may be yet to come.

Resnais’ film expresses anxiety, if not outright pessimism, about the state of political relations between Eastern and Western nations. The possibility for a disaster even worse than the Hiroshima bombing looms threateningly in the background, regardless of whether or not the desire for peace remains strong.

By choosing to film the people of Hiroshima through layers of artifice, Resnais suggests that they have become outwardly immune to the weighty moral issues that their existence entails.

The ambivalence of Hiroshima’s citizens stems from their position inside the enclosed city space; a position that, unfortunately, does not tend to allow for an unbiased perspective. Yet, at the same time, Resnais suggests that those who come from “outside the wall” do not necessarily possess an unbiased perspective either.

The only person who is outwardly affected emotionally by the sight of the parade is the French woman, though her emotion is not entirely selfless, since it is clearly linked to her own past experiences.

As Elle watches the children and other extras pass by, the memories of her miserable life in Nevers during the war return to haunt her. She is made uncomfortable by the parade, not solely because she pities the plight of the citizens of Hiroshima, but because the sight of the marching crowd brings back personal memories of her own experiences in France on D-day.

Critic Jacques Doniol-Valcroze characterizes the French woman’s character succinctly in his conversation with Rivette and the other Cahiers critics:

Emanuelle Riva is a modern adult woman because she is not an adult woman. Quite the contrary, she is very childish, motivated solely by her impulses and not by her ideas.

The notion that Riva’s character is a “modern woman” because she is fickle and selfish is significant.

Resnais’ directorial decision to show Riva’s character getting lost in and subsequently pushed around by the crowd of extras at the end of this scene furthermore suggests that the love story between Elle and Lui is in constant conflict with the city of Hiroshima itself.

The Japanese man, (a.k.a. “Lui”) meanwhile, is more focused on attempting to convince his lover not to leave than he is on the spectacle that is taking place in front of him.

Yet, as Duras clearly indicates in the screenplay directions, Lui has strong opinions about the possibility for peace in Hiroshima.

At one point, he comments to Elle:

Ici, à Hiroshima, on ne se moque pas des films sur la paix. [Here, in Hiroshima, we do not make fun of films about peace].

This rather harsh-sounding line inserted into an otherwise innocuous conversation is one of the rare indications, within this film, of the Japanese man’s political convictions.

It is important to stress that Lui is not a mere pawn in the life of Elle, and that he clearly feels a strong kinship to his fellow citizens.

Even though he was not physically in Hiroshima when the bombing occurred — he was somewhere “on the outside” fighting in the war — his family was there.

Duras does not provide us with any more specific information about his experiences during the war. The Japanese man’s personal history remains shrouded in a veil of mystery.

Elle is portrayed as a selfish, “not rational” modern woman — not a particularly flattering portrayal — whereas so little is known about Lui that, as a character, he is much more difficult to parse.

Lui tells his lover over and over again at the beginning of the film:

Tu n’as rien vu à Hiroshima.[You saw nothing in Hiroshima].

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 interpretation of the Japanese man’s statement seems correct:

It has to be taken in the simplest sense,

he remarks.

She saw nothing because she wasn’t there. Nor was he…the point of departure is the moment of awareness, or at the very least the desire to become aware.

As Godard observes, the desire to untangle the historical implications of the Hiroshima bombing is shared by both Elle and Lui, though each of them deals with this desire in different, almost opposite, ways.

Elle purports to have seen everything, whereas Lui tells her: no, you have seen nothing. Yet we must be careful to note that he does not say that he himself has seen nothing, only that she has not; we do not know what he has or has not experienced.

If we take Lui’s statement in its simplest sense, as Godard proposes, we can interpret his words by their literal meaning, not only as an overly broad, abstract statement about spectatorship, even though such an interpretation is possible.

The former interpretation leads us on a path towards the desire to know, while the latter leads us around in circles.

Flannery has a PhD in Comparative Literature. She teaches French, Italian, and visual media. Her book on Taiwanese cinema can be found on Amazon.

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