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A couragious and honest exploration of love
on June 8, 2001
As with most works of art that probe a subtle truth, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" will confuse a lot of people. On the surface, this film appears to be strange glimpse of failed romance and anti-social behavior. The characters, an unidentified French woman and Japanese man are having a brief and transitory love affair in Hiroshima, many years after World War II. Both of them are married (the man professes to love his wife) and neither is a stranger to anonymous love affairs.
Although neither party knows the other's name, they share crucial aspects of their history and identity with each other. The man is a resident of Hiroshima who was away serving in the army when the city was bombed. During the war, the woman lived in an occupied French city called Nevers and fell in love with a German soldier. When the soldier was killed the woman was punished for being a collaborator and was subsequently banished to her parents' basement for several month where in her own words she became "mad with spite".
The film opens by interweaving scenes of the man and woman making love, with scenes of Hiroshima bombing victims. This tells us that their story-particularly their love affair-is rooted in an act of unimaginable destruction. In the man's case, everything returns to the bombing of Hiroshima. When the woman tells him of the different monuments and documentary footage of the bombing she encountered, he replies that she has seen nothing. In the woman's case, her entire life was redefined the moment her German lover was killed by French partisans. The act of destruction was personally more traumatic and pivotal than the war itself. Worse yet was her tremendous sense of failure in surviving this event and being able to continue life without her lover. The man is inescapably a product of the bombing of Hiroshima just as the woman is a product of her experience in Nevers.
The woman tells the man that until her affair with him, she has never loved anyone the way she loved the German soldier. She shares her sense of failure at having survived the death of the German solider with the man.
The beginning of courtship and love often involves putting one's best foot forward, so to speak-of promoting oneself in order to appeal to the other person. But this film argues that the foundation of love is something more sacred and more sensible. It is often a person's deepest sense of failure, fear, or inadequacy that defines who that person really is. The woman attests to this by stating that her true sense of self began when she emerged from her eight months of confinement in her parents' basement. She tells the man that aside from him, no one including her husband understands that that experience made her who she is today. The Japanese man expresses great joy in being the only one in the world who knows. He comprehends the magnitude of her gift and its testament of her love for him.
The love affair between the man and the woman is a doomed and paradoxical one. The woman gives herself to the man completely, but she can only do so because their relationship is free of any obligation to each other. They meet only for the purpose of loving each other under anonymous and temporary conditions. For them no other role is possible. At the end of the film, the loves part without revealing their names. The woman tells the man his name is "Hiroshima" and he replies, "Yes, and yours is Nevers. Nevers in France." In refusing to disclose their names, the lovers banish their public identities from the momentary world that they have created for themselves. A love affair is essentially the creation of a new world that is populated only by two people under specific conditions. Entirely new things become important. Streets, restaurants, and hotel rooms that would normally mean nothing suddenly take on an incalculable significance. In this case, Hiroshima is the place where their love affair takes place, which implies that the city is destroyed twice: first by the bombing and then by the end of the affair. Of course the film begins with the scenes of the lovers intertwined with scenes of the bombing. In the years to come, whenever the woman hears of Hiroshima she will immediately think of both. Like the love that defined who she was as a human being, this one too is rooted in unimaginable destruction.
While the film is superb in its own right, one should really read the original screen play by Marguerite Duras since it sheds much light on the characters in the film. The screen play describes the Japanese man as having Western features and hardly looking like a typical Asian male. Duras purposely requested this so that viewers would not see the Japanese man as exotic or unusual. The Japanese is further described as being worldly in the sense that he is conversant in several languages and involved in politics. Duras states that he is the kind of man who would be at home in any country. Similarly the woman is described as being not very beautiful. In the film the man tells her that he was first interested in her because she looked bored. The attraction defies typical filmic clichés but makes sense is subtle ways.
While this film may alienate many viewers, it will hopefully leave most with a deeper impression and with a series of questions. What does it really mean to love someone? What is the real definition of fidelity? What else does war destroy besides physical things such as people, materials, and the environment? What is trust? What defines a person's identity, success or failure?