Monday, March 19, 2007

Hiroshima Mon Amour - The Opening Sequence

Questions recently asked by "d" in the now-defunct Armchair Director forum:
I'm intrigued, though; what is happening in the beginning of this film? Is Riva herself when she's saying all that? Or is she feeling somebody elses emotions? Why is he denying all that she sais? What's with the "You saw nothing in Hiroshima" comments? Is it just a display of dubious memories? Aren't we supposed to know for sure, or am I stupid to not have figured it out?
There are many things to discuss in these questions.

From listening to Peter Cowie on the commentary, the opening sequence is Riva describing her experiences of the last few days in Hiroshima.

Cowie says:

As she talks about visiting the hospital and the museum, the people avert their faces. She cannot engage with them, instead she's a tourist, peering in at the glass walls, as it were, of a fish tank.

This begins to get at another of the above questions. Why does the Japanese man (Okada) say she saw nothing in Hiroshima? The simplest answer may suffice. Because she was not there, because her experience of that day was in Paris. Okada mentions at one point in the film that he had heard it was a sunny day in Paris the day of Hiroshima (Aug. 6th, 1945). Encountering Hiroshima for the first time in the hospital and museum, she has a completely distorted view of it. Resnais points to this by using film clips from a Japanese reconstruction of the events in a film called Children of Hiroshima.

Cowie describes the clips as used in Hiroshima Mon Amour:

Their very lack of authenticity suggests that this is how the Riva character views the catastrophe.

Yet, this simple answer does not address the way in which Resnais presents the images, nor does it get at Riva's state of mind in recounting her experience of Hiroshima (a decade and some after the actual event).

OK, first of all, we can talk more about the documentary-style of the opening sequence. Resnais had only made documentaries up to this point, including his famous Night and Fog, and the opening sequence is a continuation of the technique used in those films: notably, the long tracking shots and the incredible montage (juxtaposition of images for a greater effect). Mostly though, these images seem to me to convey a dream-like state of mind. There is an odd beauty to these images, and if this impression of the images is to say anything about Riva, we have to assume that there is much more going on with her than a normal tourist experience of a past catastrophe. More on this later. I think what is interesting to me though is what this might say about Resnais' filmmaking and the way in which we are to view the sequence.

Jacques Rivette says this about Resnais' montage from a Cahiers roundtable discussion on the film in 1959:
It's a double movement - emphasizing the autonomy of the shot and the simultaneously seeking within that shot a strength that will enable it to enter into a relationship with another or several other shots, and in this way eventually form a unity. But don't forget, this unity is no longer that of classic continuity. It is a unity of contrasts, a dialectical unity as Hegel and Domarchi would say.
This dialectical unity of the image in the opening sequence, coupled with Riva's affected voice-over, and Giovanni Fusco's unforgettable score, lend a timeless, dream-like air to the sequence. Not to mention the pure movements of the camera. We as viewers are given an experience of Hiroshima as well in the process. We encounter the twisted metal in the museum, the long hall of the hospital, the faces of the survivors.

Since we do not know the circumstances of Riva's character, we take her words and Okada's words at face value. They are simply words connected to images, and we do not associate them with characters. But is this right? The opening shot of entwined bodies without faces, only voices, adds another element to our impression of the documentary-style of the sequence. What with the affirmative recounting of experience on the part of the woman and the negative rejection on the part of the man, we get a sense of an eternal struggle for identity. The bodies, entwined, striving positively and negatively. I wonder what it means that the woman says yes but the man says no (a feminist reading may be in order). Still though, when I watch this movie, I don't think about why there is a no and a yes. I think we take it for granted that this is the situation in which the information is presented. Because of the dreamlike nature of the sequence, we are sucked in, and have no desire to question what we see and hear.

Writing that though, with the perspective of remembering Hiroshima in mind, I wonder whether that is a good thing. History does not seem to be something to take in blindly, but something to question, to grapple with. But this film is not about Hiroshima, but about remembering Hiroshima, about the act of remembering and forgetting, and how our identities are connected to our memories. In this sense, the tone of the sequence works perfectly.

With the primary action of Hiroshima in mind (remembering, forgetting, identity-forming), and with a better sense of Riva's character, we can then look again at the sequence with a new lens to see through. Cowie's straightforward explanation of the sequence, as seeing through the eyes of a tourist, no longer will suffice. The struggle between the yes and the no is too important, too passionate, to ignore.

Rivette helps introduce this new lens:

The Emmanuelle Riva character is that of a woman who is not irrational, but is not-rational. She doesn't understand herself. She doesn't analyze herself. That is the theme of Hiroshima: a woman who no longer knows where she stands, who no longer knows who she is, who tries desperately to redefine herself in relation to Hiroshima, in relation to this Japanese man, and in relation to the memories of Nevers that come back to her. In the end she is a woman who is starting all over again, going right back to the beginning, trying to define herself in existential terms before the world and before her past, as if she were once more unformed matter in the process of being born.
Riva approaches her experiences of the hospital, museum, film clips etc., like a child would (like a film-goer would), with wide-open eyes, filled with wonderment. This is why when Okada says, "You saw nothing in Hiroshima," she responds, "I saw everything." Whether she consciously decided to or not, Riva is beginning the process of renewal. She takes everything in as a child, and in recounting what she has seen, as a storyteller, she is conveying what is important to her, she is defining herself. So why does Okada negate this? Perhaps he is trying to protect her. He senses that she is completely vulnerable, and taking on the horrors of a past that does not belong to her is not a positive move. However, the act of recounting is positive, is cathartic, and will become the model for Riva to tell her own story.

One of the most searing and beautiful statements she makes in the opening sequence is: "You are destroying me, you are good for me." I think it is this statement in particular that gets at the identity-forming that is desired and that will occur. In the destruction, or deconstruction, of her former self, who she was in Nevers, she will then be able to move forward. It is Okada's questioning, direction, that allow this to happen. Thus, Riva speaks to Okada when she says the above statement. It is said between lovers, said in the moment, and it is simply breath-taking.

Thus, to sum up. I think there are two ways to understand the opening sequence. One, in terms of being a viewer, relating to the images in a child-like fashion (mirroring Riva). And two, in terms of the identity-forming of Riva's character, which, we only get a better sense of after taking in the whole film.

There is probably a lot more to be said about the act of remembering and forgetting as it relates to this film. I'd love to delve more into that, because I think it would provide a striking example of how the idea of cinema relates to memory in general.


Edwin N said...

Excellent analysis.
Check mine at

Mez said...

Brilliant essay, very deep. enjoyed it very much!