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.
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Thank you so much for this post and your participation. I liked the approach a lot and found especially the last three points very insightful. It’s interesting to think that we lose memories when we speak about them. I often feel like this when I write about something. There is a lot to explore in this. I had a feeling that there was a personal element in the book and although I read one of her biographies, I can’t remember.
Point no. 5 is incredible. The Americans might be offended or shocked? It’s as if someone said “We can’t show the Germans movies of concentration camps.They might be shocked or offended…” Unbelievable.
Fascinating review–I haven’t seen the movie yet. But I can say definitely present trumps past!
“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.”
Actually, that one is pretty good compared to Le Camion, where Duras herself reads *a script* of a film to Gerard Depardieu. Pauline Kael, who adored Duras, reported that that one got Duras jeered at Cannes.
Wow, Duras. Quite the behaviors she indulged in! It’s funny that the guidance of Alain Resnais resulted in a film that was MORE structured and coherent than her other film work—I mean, look at Last Year at Marienbad. The man is not exactly conservative in his aesthetics.
Your points about ordinary and traumatic memory are such an insightful and concise articulation of what’s going on with Elle.
I have not seen this film, but I will need to! Thank you for all the information about it. It sounds very good to have found your earlier writing good but not great and that you have done better things since. Definitely a sense of progression and improvement is a good thing!
Caroline – your comment made me rush back to the biography of Duras I was reading, and indeed, Night and Fog was also turned down by the Cannes committee on the grounds it might offend the Germans. Extraordinary, no? I had no idea when I first read Duras how very autobiographical her works are. Of course, you can read them perfectly well without knowing this, but it added a further dimension for me when I found out about it. As for memory work, I find it completely fascinating. For a while I was very involved in researching trauma so it was important for that, too.
Lilian – thank you! and I couldn’t agree more!
David – oh goodness; I do recall reading about Le Camion (it was Depardieu’s first film, wasn’t it? Was it? I could be wrong – Duras certainly liked him, anyway), but did not know it received that reaction. Your comment did make me laugh!
Emily – Duras was such a difficult person – charming and quite delightful at times, impossibly badly behaved at others. Her biography makes for fascinating reading, although I suppose a person could be a bit put off her work in consequence and that would be a shame. Your comment about Resnais is most amusing!! Seriously, David is quite right in his comment above that her other films were ludicrously unstructured. Aw bless her.
Dorothy – it was a relief, I can tell you! For years I’d return to my thesis book for some reason to do with teaching and sigh and think I’d never surpass it. So it was good to look back now and think, well, it was fine, but not the best I could do. These things can haunt a person! 🙂
Your point in #8 is for me one of the most fascinating things about this slender screenplay, esp. since two big books I’ve been reading lately by Javier Marías and Proust are taking on some of those same issues from rather different perspectives. Also was interested to learn from you about Resnais having been worried about setting the love story to the Hiroshima backdrop–I thought that was audacious but, while not offensive to me insofar as I think I understand what he and Duras were doing, still quite risky and open to misunderstanding (NB: I still haven’t seen the film yet, but I understand it might be more harrowing than the script). Glad to see confirmed that I wasn’t alone on that point and, while I’m at, I really enjoyed the unusual structure of this post!
I have not seen the film but I really enjoyed how you went about writing about it. I thought it was funny that the French were afraid the Americans would be shocked. I am sure your dissertation is brilliant, but it is hard to see it without being critical. Sounds like in those dozen years, Litlove has learned to be more compassionate to herself 🙂
Wow, Duras sounds unbearable, or am I especially impatient just now?! And your comments about your book raised a smile, Litlove – I don’t think enough years have passed for me to bring my thesis down off the (highest) shelf, but I do occasionally wonder what on earth I’d find inside!
It looks like Depardieu was around from 1971 or so; a pity, because Le Camion would be a hilariously inauspicious start to a career. The earliest thing I know him in is Going Places, which didn’t exactly predict him becoming a superstar either. Kael’s review is in the big “For Keeps” collection, but I don’t have it at hand or else I’d quote it. To get a Cannes audience mad at Marguerite Duras must take some doing.
Richard – excellent point there about the way Marias and Proust explore very similar thematics. I hadn’t thought of that but it’s quite true. As for the love story, Duras, as you may imagine, was wholly confident and wouldn’t have done it any other way, poor old Renais suffered the pangs of anxiety (and edited the film multiple times). But in fact, it really does work well.
Stefanie – lol – that gave me a smile! Yes, perhaps finally, after all these years, I will cut myself a little slack (just from time to time!). I had to laugh too at how cautious that jury was about the film (and it turns out about any film that might cause international offense). But in a way, I guess it’s good that they cared. And bless you for thinking my dissertation might be good. I really enjoyed writing it up to the final 6 months, so it’s got nice memories attached to it.
Doctordi – no, you’re perfectly correct, Duras could be utterly unbearable when she chose (and often just because she could). I don’t think I would have lasted long around her. I was terrified I’d be obliged to go to France and interview her, but thankfully she died while I was writing my thesis, which was very well timed on her part. I don’t think I know what you wrote your dissertation on? I’d love to have a look at it – and I’ll bet you’d surprise yourself if you looked at it, too. 🙂
David – how your comments made me laugh! So Depardieu is much older than I think he is – alas! – that is the way for so many people who were grown-ups when I was in my university days…. I don’t know that debut film. It’s sort of tempting to hire it for a laugh, or perhaps when I can’t sleep one night.
I’m afraid I didn’t get to this one, though I’ve read all of the other books on Caroline’s list so far. I think I will watch the movie at some point as reading so much about it has made me very curious, though it sounds a little difficult emotionally? I do like what you have to say about memory, however. Distance is a very good thing indeed sometimes!
Danielle – it’s really hard to keep up with all the readalongs – I’m impressed you’ve read all the books in Caroline’s so far! It is a good film, but the opening sequences of Hiroshima are hard, I think (or they were for a wimp like me!). And yes, thank goodness memory fades and alters with time. It would be tough to have to live with everything that happens in full technicolour detail….