Hiroshima Mon Amour is the film that started the French New Wave before it even had a name. With its stylish lead actors, sexy characters, risqué close-ups, non-linear style and disregard for traditional chronology, it set the tone for the next decade or so of influential French films. Its reach could still be felt forty years later, with the release of Before Sunrise – a film that is similarly about two people talking. Before Sunrise has none of the depth of feeling or the anti-nuclear sentiment that Hiroshima Mon Amour possesses, but it’s hard to watch both films and not see certain parallels between them. It’s lazy but it’s arguably true – Before Sunrise is Hiroshima Mon Amour for Generation X.
There’s two characters in Hiroshima Mon Amour – him, a Japanese architect played by Eiji Okada, and she, a French actress played by Emmanuelle Riva. The characters remain unnamed throughout, because to name them is not important for the story, which consists of a series of conversations that take place over a period of a few days, and that is it. The conversations between the two characters reveal the little differences between two cultures that were at war just a decade previously. It’s also about the persistence and fault of memory, and how our past affects the present.
While the film remains very influential, as stated before, it’s easy to get bored with this film. It’s also easy to instinctively dislike the female character, who starts the film with a ten minute monologue on the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and then compares her own past, in which her hair was forcibly shorn off as a result of the people of Nevers – the town she grew up in – discovering her affair with a German soldier, to the women of Hiroshima waking up after the bomb to discover their own hair falling out as a result of exposure to radiation. In this she seems to suggest that little Hiroshimas happen to everybody – everyone has a point in their life where something is completely irradiated, be it their dignity, or trust in someone – but the people of Hiroshima suffered a very literal and physical nuclear explosion. Somehow, in her mind, they are almost the same.
The film carries on with semi-mystical and mysterious dialogue, and with much forced laughter. Eiji Okada has great screen presence but he is not the best actor, and some moments in the film are completely laughable – the scene when we are first introduced to the pair in bed remains a stand-out in terms of cringe-worthy dialogue.
Sure, the film was – and still is – influential, but only by virtue of being one of the first to show that it is possible to make a film about something as intangible as memory, and to make the film a series of conversations. It’s just a shame that the film isn’t that good.
Eiji Okada seems like a strange choice, but was only chosen because of the production companies – the film is a Japanese and French co-production – and each company insisted on a character of their own nationality.