This is why you should always do things ahead of time if possible. I was going to write this post on Sunday and then realised the book I wanted to consult was in college. And it was a nice day and I was sitting reading in the garden; so inevitably I thought, oh well, I’ll pick it up after working in the bookshop and write the post on Monday. Then Monday I got home wilting after a hot afternoon lugging grubby books about and just couldn’t summon the energy. So finally today I get to write about Hiroshima mon amour, a film by Alain Resnais, screenplay Marguerite Duras for Caroline’s readalong with many apologies to Caroline for tardiness and a slap on my own wrist for messing up my blogging schedule. Back in the mists of time, I wrote about this at length for my PhD dissertation, and so I find today I have to take a different approach.
Ten Things To Know About Hiroshima mon amour
1. This was the first film Duras ever wrote, and she did so having absolutely no idea what she was doing. Fortunately, she had the brilliant director Alain Resnais to guide her. Unfortunately this left Duras with the idea (one she needed no prompting to adopt) that making films was all about following her free-spirited creative genius wherever it led her. A decade of atrocious films followed, well, unless you like women walking aimlessly along beaches to a tinkling piano soundtrack whilst a voice-over spouts poetic irrelevancies.
2. It was such a low budget film that Alain Resnais couldn’t afford the time to audition actors. He just picked one from a bunch of photos, but was relieved when he got to Japan that he’d ‘picked the most cultured actor in Tokyo. That first evening I invited him out to dinner. The first thing he said to me was, “How is Marguerite Duras’s work different from existentialism?” I felt reassured.’
3. Renais was terribly worried that the film would be a flop, that it contained too many disparate threads and that the central conceit, writing about two overlapping love stories in order to approach the subject of the bombing of Hiroshima would be seen as insulting or trivialising or just plain wrong. Was it a film or was it a documentary? Was it in any way credible? In his anxiety he persuaded 34 people to watch the first version on separate occasions and give him their opinions.
4. Most of the 34 found Duras’s script displeasing, too lyrical, too highly pitched.
5. The Cannes Film Festival board of selectors suggested the film represent France, but the committee voted five votes to four against, on the grounds that it might offend or shock the Americans. It went on to be a notable hit across the world, and voted best foreign movie in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
6. Duras tried to force Resnais into making a second film with her: ‘Read my screenplay. We start filming in two weeks,’ she told him. When he refused (politely) she took it very bitterly indeed and never forgave him. She went so far as to accuse him of stealing the subject of Hiroshima from her and of pocketing profits (to the tune of 22 million francs) she should have received. Neither of these was in any way true. She appealed to Anatole Dauman, the founder and director of the film company who made Hiroshima and he gave her 4 million francs to keep her sweet. This was very effective.
7. The film merges two love affairs, one that took place in the war years in France between the female protagonist (known just as Elle ‘she’) and a German soldier, for which act of collaboration, she is denounced and has her head shaven. And the second love affair, over a decade later, when the same female protagonist picks up a Japanese man in a bar. She uses this love affair in the present to unlock the memories of the traumatic love affair in the past. The plotline of the forbidden, collaborative relationship was autobiographical; Duras had had a very odd affair with a man whom she believed to be a German passing himself off as a Frenchman in order to spy. At the time, Duras’s husband was in a concentration camp, and she believed the man, Charles Delval, had some power over his situation. She imagined herself getting close to him in order to win information, although quite what happened, given Duras was also a mendacious attention-seeker, no one knows.
8. The film is essentially about (to me, at least) the way that even the most intense, traumatic and significant experiences fade and wither over time, get written over by more recent events. And yet surely those powerful events are the ones that shape and define our lives? How to understand the sum of our existence when everything is subject to the attrition of time? When we can’t hang onto the most moving experiences that happen to us?
9. It’s also about memory, and about the way that remembering causes us to forget. Traumatic memory is a painful sort of remembering in which events return unbidden to consciousness as if they were happening all over again. Normal, healthy memory is known as narrative memory, and it is characterised by being rather distant from what really happened, shaped and moulded by the process of internal mental digestion. So as Elle in the film recalls her traumatic memories of her German lover, so she is aware of them slipping away from her as she turns them into ordinary narrative. Never again will they have the punch and the terrible lucidity of reality. We can stay true to the past at the cost of our sanity and control over our lives, or we can accept to forget, to let the past go, and regain our mental equilibrium. This was no easy choice for Duras and her books and her films play out the dilemma again and again.
10. I had to reread what I’d written about this film in the book that came out of my PhD dissertation. Theses are funny things; some parts of it look dreadful in the years that follow and you wonder how you could ever have written such naïve tosh. And other parts look amazing, and you doubt you will ever have such insight again. Thankfully, at the remove of a dozen years, the book looked just okay, not great, not dreadful. I’ve written better things since. I found this more reassuring than I can say. I think I’m quite happy to let the past go and to accept the present in its place.