The Reverse Atomic Principle of Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour
Lecture presented by Dr Greg Hainge (University of Queensland) at the Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art, Wednesday 12 September 2007, as part of the Breathless: French New Wave Turns 50 program.
Alain Resnais is a filmmaker often thought about in conjunction with the French New Wave and yet he is quite separate from it in many ways. His career in the cinema did not start as a critic as was the case with many of the New Wave directors but, rather, as an editor and then as a maker of documentary short films. It is then perhaps because of the temporal coincidence between the release of his first feature-length films and those of the other directors of the New Wave that he is often associated with this movement, although there seems to be with Resnais the same kind of desire to break with the dominant moulds of contemporary French film making of the time that we see with Godard, Truffaut et al. In many other respects, however, Resnais breaks from the New Wave paradigms. He is not an auteur in the most common sense of that term in its relation to the New Wave, which is to say that he is not the sole author of his work, the all-powerful sole creator transmitting a singular vision; indeed, he is resolutely not the author of any of his films, always working in collaboration with writers. What is more, his films are not characterised by the spontaneity and improvisation that we see so often with the New Wave directors but, rather, by an extremely rigourous formal aesthetic.
If we can say that he fits in with the New Wave because of his desire to break with existing modes of cinematic production, however, there is here also an important difference when we talk about Resnais. For whilst the other auteurs of the New Wave broke with French cinematic tradition by referencing other cinematic texts, Resnais created an entirely new film language, much more radical in many ways, referencing literary texts (through collaboration) and theatre (in aesthetic) and not other films. As Roy Armes has stated:
On a deeper level too Resnais's film style is characterised by theatrical acting. His aim is to deny the audience any too-easy identification with the players: "Let us say that I am concerned to address the spectator in a critical state of mind. For that I need to make films that are not natural". Actresses like Riva and Seyrig make this possible: "If I turn to actors from the theatre it is undoubtedly because I am looking for a kind of realism that is not 'realism', and I look for actors who can give a certain type of intonation, a certain phrasing more difficult to obtain from actors trained in the cinema."
It is interesting in the light of this to think of Resnais as a kind of precursor to David Lynch in whose films we see a similar theatricality that seems to create an entirely new kind of reality. In Resnais, as in Lynch also, there seems to be a desire to implicate the spectator, to make her an active participant through thought, to force her to engage with the films intellectually rather than to merely accept them from a state of passivity. This is ultimately to say, then, that Resnais' films are often more difficult.
As we can see in this quotation from Armes, one of the major ways in which he really wishes to engage our brains is by constantly questioning the division between fiction and reality, and this is very often done via a reflection on genre, a juxtaposition of documentary and fiction.
In context of GoMA's New Wave retrospective, therefore, it is important to think about this division and other similar divisions in the film. But I will do so here via a brief excursus through another film that presents itself as the documentary film of a failed attempt to remake Hiroshima mon amour. The film is Nobuhiro Suwa's H Story and the genesis of the film has been described by Tom Mes as follows:
this pseudo-documentary about an aborted remake of Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour came about after actual plans to do so were thwarted by disagreements between director Nobuhiro Suwa and prospective star and writer Kou Machida (aka Machizo Machida [...])
– Tom Mes.
This reading of the film is entirely unsurprising given the material presented to the viewer. Firstly, the film is prefaced by an inscription which reads: "With reference to the motion picture 'Hiroshima mon amour' produced by Argos film, directed by Alain Resnais, based upon Marguerite Duras's screenplay and dialogue, published by Editions Gallimard". Secondly, the film starts with Suwa talking to Béatrice Dalle (through an interpreter) about the motivation of the character whose role she is attempting to recreate in a reconstruction of Hiroshima mon amour's first scene following the lengthy initial prologue. What is more, the film contains many other such recreated scenes in which Béatrice Dalle and Hiroaki Umano read the lines of Duras's characters Elle and Lui spoken by Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada forty years prior. And finally, H Story appears to document the gradual disintegration and abandonment of the remake project that has given birth to the very recreated scenes that we witness.
But we can only read H Story as the documentary of a failed remake project, fragments of which nonetheless appear in the finished documentary, if we pay no heed to the film's form and if we view it in isolation from rather than alongside Hiroshima mon amour. For as soon as one pays attention to the camerawork and editing of Suwa's film, one is quickly disabused of the possibility that H Story is little more than a "making of" documentary. For whereas in the latter category of films the film crew making the documentary films the film crew making the film, each team having their own personnel and equipment and this different often being signaled to the viewer with the use of noticeably different film stock or even a different format (such as video), here there is only one crew and, it would seem, only one camera. Thus, in the first scene of H Story we see Suwa explaining the motivation of the Riva character to Dalle as she is about to recreate an early scene from Hiroshima mon amour.
Being privy to this kind of discussion between a director and an actor, we naturally assume that this is part of the documentary portion of H Story, yet in the same take a clapperboard bearing the production details of the film H Story is then presented to this same camera which subsequently starts to film Dalle and Umano recreating the original scene. This entire sequence is filmed in one take and contains no cuts with the result that it becomes impossible to maintain the illusion that we are in fact dealing with two separate filmic texts: the remake of Hiroshima mon amour which will be abandoned and the making of the documentary.
On the contrary, the filmic space created in this first scene is one which is cohabited by these apparently different films and genres in such a way that they are not only inextricable but indistinguishable from each other. This happens again and again through the film. For instance, in the recreated scenes that we witness, Suwa often frames his shot in such a way that the documentary level slips into the fictional frame, showing shade cards in the shot. In addition, during an interview between Suwa and Machida in which Suwa reflects on the making of the film and Machida questions the sense of doing a remake of Hiroshima mon amour, we again see the clapperboard indicating to us that we are still in the only filmic text in existence, that of H Story, and then Suwa comes close to ventriloquising the final lines of Resnais's film saying: "In a sense, Hiroshima, that's me" so that fictional elements of Hiroshima mon amour cross over into the pseudo-documentary parts of H Story.
This happens in an even more striking way, however, as the supposed real-life actors of Suwa's remake embody the fictional story of Hiroshima mon amour in the apparent documentary portions of the film. So, once the remake project seems to have been abandoned, the actors, Béatrice Dalle and Kou Machida, start to wander around Hiroshima, visiting a museum of modern art displaying only works that deal with the nuclear blast, thereby recreating the initial museum scene from Hiroshima mon amour's fictional prologue, then becoming the lovers from Resnais's film as they retrace their exact steps, the couple in both films passing in front of a shop whose shutters read FUKUYA. What is more, whereas in Resnais's original the couple cross a pair of guitar strumming youths, a detail that could easily go unnoticed, in Suwa's film this same street is filled with groups of buskers, an incidental detail from the original thereby being intensified in Suwa's remake. Even more striking is the composition of one of the final shots of H Story set in some ruins, for the composition of the shot and the placement of various features of the ruins within the frame make of this shot an exact structural analogy of a shot from Resnais's film set in the ruins in Nevers in which Elle used to meet her German lover during the war.
There is here then an absolute incommensurability or imperceptibility between documentary and fiction. But for this reason I want to suggest that in spite of what appear to be very significant differences between the two films, in spite of the fact that H Story really doesn't seem to be any kind of strict remake of Hiroshima mon amour, it is very much a remake, but one which thinks Hiroshima mon amour anew as Resnais wishes his audience to do, that intensifies latent elements from Hiroshima. This is to say, then, that Hiroshima was always already a film in which there is an indistinguishability between documentary and fiction, just as in Guernica and Night and Fog.
The Genesis of Hiroshima mon amour
After the success of Night and Fog, Anatole Dauman asked Resnais to make a feature length film and the idea was again to make a documentary. We are here of course before the explosion of the New Wave and it is thus very difficult to find funding for projects such as this, considered to be experimental and with little mainstream appeal. However, because of some corporate conglomerations and deals signed at this precise time, it just so happened that Dauman, from a small production company Argos films, was able to access, through Pathé overseas, Japanese funds reserved for a Franco-Japanese co-production. The idea was thus formulated to pitch a film that would interest the Japanese and be suitable for Resnais, and this concept resulted in the concept of a documentary on nuclear arms. There was one condition imposed by the funding contract: that there be scenes filmed in France and Japan and that they use local technicians; indeed, only one technician from France was allowed to accompany Resnais to Japan. The project was thus crystallised and Resnais accepted, watched lots of the existing documentaries in order to prepare for his own work, worked on the project for 3 months, but then decided he couldn't do it feeling that there was no point in doing another documentary on this same topic & feeling like he was only repeating Night and Fog every time he tried to come up with an idea. He therefore decided to do a work of fiction instead.
Not being a writer, however, he looked for a literary collaborator. His first suggestion was Françoise Sagan and legend has it that Sagan stood up the producers who had arranged a meeting with her not once but twice. They thus drew up a list of other possible collaborators and Resnais suggested Duras and de Beauvoir. The producers preferred Duras as they felt she was more feminine, they thought de Beauvoir was too intellectual, too '2ème sexe'. Resnais thus talked with Duras, asked her to write a screenplay which would stay true to her own language, not to try to imagine what a screenplay should be like with directions. He also asked for something of the rhythm of her Moderato cantabile, and suggested that it should be a love story which has the nuclear holocaust as its ineluctable background, just as there were planes circling the globe in the 50s which were omnipresent but still didn't stop other things from happening.
With all of this in place, the screenplay was presented to the producer Nagata who didn't understand a thing, but still accepted to loan the money on the condition that it was reimbursed after 18 months. The need to reimburse this loan understandably caused a great deal of stress for the producers, never more so than in the run up to the Cannes film festival; there was at the time no way that a film such as Resnais's could attract an audience without the exposure that it would gain from a positive critical reception at Cannes, and thus there was a period of considerable panic for all involved with the film when it seemed for a while that it would not even be screened at Cannes. Eventually it was, however, out of competition, but to great critical acclaim nonetheless.
In its very conception, then, Hiroshima mon amour is a strange mix of documentary and fiction, and this is figured explicitly in the prologue to the film which both vacillates between documentary footage and pseudo-documentary footage, all of which is punctuated by the fiction to come via repeated shots of the entwined lovers' bodies that open that film and whose story will form the major part of the film after the prologue (bodies which seem as inextricable as the temporal and generic layers of the film).
If one looks at stills from the lengthy prologue of the film (shots 1-132), one can see how this generic conflation works, scenes shot by Resnais having both a documentary quality and an extreme formal aesthetic far removed from that realm just as actual documentary footage is used with the same kind of strict structural organisational principles as the Resnais filmed footage, the genres blending together imperceptibly, therefore.
The dialogues also often seem to talk directly to this question of representation and the impossibility of faithfully giving a "real" or "documentary" representation of something as horrendous and uncontainable as the events of Hiroshima. Indeed, Elle's voice-over states:
Les reconstitutions ont été faites le plus sérieusement possible.
Les films ont été faits le plus sérieusement possible.
L'illusion, c'est bien simple, est tellement parfaite que les touristes pleurent.
On peut toujours se moquer mais que peut faire d'autre un touriste que, justement, pleurer?
[The reconstructions were done as seriously as possible.
The films were made as seriously as possible.
The illusion, it's plain to see, is so perfect that tourists weep.
One can always scoff, but what else can a tourist do but weep?]
This ideological questioning of the limits of representation ties in of course to the widespread sense in modern society about the insufficiency of representation born of the crisis of representation following the 'mega-events' and horrors of the Twentieth century. Indeed, one need only think of Picasso's 'Guernica', which Resnais of course used in his own documentary of this same name, to understand this point. But more than this, however, this problematisation of the documentary realm in the film comes because of Resnais's pragmatic sense of inability sufficiently to represent the horror of what he was talking about. He states:
Chaque fois qu'on montrait quelque chose de complètement réel sur l'écran, eh bien l'horreur disparaissait.
[Each time we showed something completely real on the screen, all of the horror disappeared.]
What Resnais's methodology in this film ultimately does then is to create a kind of in-between space, one which fuses documentary / the real and fiction / the cinema together in such a way that the two are inseparable from each other. This kind of spatial conceptualisation also describes the identity politics in the film (Elle explaining at one point that between the body of her dead German lover and her own, 'je n'arrivais pas à trouver la moindre différence entre ce corps mort et le mien, que des ressemblances' [I couldn't find the least bit of difference between this dead body and my own, only similarities]) as well as the topological and geographical spaces of the film, especially Nevers and Hiroshima.
This conception of the spaces of the film in which there is an indiscernibility between places, identities and genres is explicitly figured by Duras in her text's screenplay's own metacommentary. She writes:
Between two beings separated geographically, philosophically, historically, economically, racially, etc., at as far a remove as possible from one another, HIROSHIMA will be the common ground (perhaps the only one in the world?) where the universal givens of eroticism, love, and misery will appear in an implacable light. Everywhere else apart from in HIROSHIMA, artifice is in play. In HIROSHIMA, it can only exist, even now, alongside its own negation.[...]
Their conversations will be both about themselves and about HIROSHIMA. And the subjects they speak of will be mixed up in such a way that from that point on, after the opera of HIROSHIMA, they will be indiscernible from one another.
Their personal story, as brief as it might be, will always refer to HIROSHIMA.
If this condition is not kept, this film, once again, will only ever be just another commissioned documentary, with no interest other than that f a somewhat romantic documentary. If this condition is kept, however, we will arrive at a kind of false documentary which will tell us much more about the lessons to be learnt from HIROSHIMA than just another commissioned documentary.
But this conception of the spaces of the film is also perhaps suggested to us by Resnais in a very brief scene from the film. During this prologue, there is one shot which is singled out by a different musical theme (even though the music of the film works around a series of themes and variations) and which cannot easily be inserted into the architectural organisation of the prologue, yet which, due to its placement, seems to form part of the film's own metacommentary on its own architectural organisation. For following a series of shots showing structurally rigorous architectural details from buildings in Hiroshima, shots which can but provide an analogue for the structural principles of the film itself, we are presented with a shot shot of a display in the museum (shot 20). The object which is singled out for such special attention and which seems to form part of a metacinematic commentary is a model of an atom, the nucleus of which is a mirror ball that projects light on to the surrounding museum exhibits and the electron paths of which are represented by a number of neon tube halos which blink alternately, the whole structure being suspended above a rectangular black base in which the whole atomic structure is reflected.
Whilst the metacinematic potential of this display which is reflected on a black screen and emits a flickering light which is projected onto other surfaces is already great, it can only take on greater significance in the context of the present analysis according to which the structural principle of Hiroshima mon amour can be described as atomic â€“ holding differential or incommensurable forces in tension. Not only does this provide a metacinematic commentary, however, it provides a political commentary also, for in signaling the space of this film as one which is governed by an atomic principle, by atomic fusion, it counters the principle of atomic fission or atomization employed in atomic bombs and thus marks itself as an anti-nuclear arms film.
This is to say then that Hiroshima mon amour is a deeply political film not only because of its manifest content but because the whole structural principle of the film is one which counters the destructuration against which the film is intended to fight. Through an extremely formal aesthetics, then, Resnais reconnects his film with the real world and argues for its own importance in the face of the horror of reality since it is a counteractive force. So whereas the fission of the atom unleashes a destructive force which erases all around it by pulling apart that unitary structure which should never be split into multiple parts, Hiroshima mon amour and H Story work by pulling together multiple parts into an incommensurable whole which does not erase but, rather, recalls and remembers in order to re-create, to ensure the continued possibility of life and expression.
Dr Greg Hainge is Senior Lecturer in French for the School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland. He obtained a BA (Honours), MA and PhD on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari from the University of Nottingham, UK. He has published widely on film, critical theory, experimental music and popular music and is the author of Capitalism and Schizophrenia in the Later Novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline; D'un … l'autre 2001. His research interests include examining the phenomenon of noise as it is manifested in cultural products and philosophy and he teaches courses on Multiculturalism in France, Contemporary French Cinema, and the writing of Céline and Jean-Paul Sartre. He is the Australian and New Zealand Representative of the Société d'Études Céliniennes and sits on the editorial boards of journals Études Céliniennes and Culture, Theory and Critique.
© Greg Hainge and the Australian Cinémathèque. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author and the Australian Cinémathèque.