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Post-World War France was witness to the emergence of the ‘nouveau roman’ and the New Wave of cinema. After many years of a drought of cinema culture, enforced by Nazi occupation and its ban on the industry, its emancipation meant that it was inundated by exposure to world cinema and the progress that it had made in the meanwhile. This reinvigorated French cinema and led to the adoption and subsequent rejection of cinematic tradition. The ‘Auteur’ movement was a stepping stone to this, which allowed directors a greater degree of freedom and agency in the creation process. These ‘New Wave’ auteurs gained the license to experiment with cinematography, form, and the editing process. Alain Resnais was one such auteur whose treatment of his work was very experimental and pioneering. Although a part of the ‘New Wave’, he was not a member of the ‘Cahiers du Cinema’, which included other luminaries such as Francois Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol. Instead, he considered himself a ‘Left Bank’ auteur, who differentiated themselves through their treatment of filmmaking as Literature, their extremely experimental filmmaking, and his association with leftist politics. Hiroshima Mon Amour is considered one of the seminal works of the time and cemented Resnais as a successful auteur. In this essay we will examine how this film relates to the larger cinematic landscape of the French New Wave, and through it Resnais’ treatment of trauma and forgetfulness through the film.

The film revolves around the conversations between a French actress and a Japanese man (who are referred to as ‘her’ and ‘him’, respectively) during their very transient relationship of only a few days. They debate on memory and forgetfulness, each recounting and comparing their individual experiences based on trauma, both coincidentally happening during the war. The temporal element in the movie is decidedly non-linear, with the characters manipulating each other psychologically to make them relive their trauma, which Resnais decides to portray through the use of flashbacks and non-continuous editing, often juxtaposing two very different images (much like practitioners of soviet montage theory such as Eisenstein). An example of this would be at the very beginning of the film, in a shot where two naked bodies intertwine, with radioactive dust glistening on their skin. This shot is succeeded by a very similar shot from a slightly altered angle, just that instead of radioactive fallout, the bodies glisten with sweat. In the next few minutes, the shot of these two bodies is repeatedly juxtaposed with scenes of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, with a voiceover conversation of the woman insisting that she remembers Hiroshima, while the man repeatedly denies it. The images of the Hiroshima bombing are actual clips of the event. This reflects how early in the production process, Resnais was working on a documentary on this catastrophic event but decided to resort to a fictive narrative to better demonstrate its traumatic nature instead. These shots oscillate from past to present, demonstrating how memory functions, and eventually indifference and forgetfulness set in as the citizens of Hiroshima slowly get over their catastrophe.

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Both the protagonists have certain traumatic experiences in their past, the woman had a troubled youth when her Nazi lover is killed during Nevers’ emancipation from German control and she is ostracized as a traitor. The man was deployed in the Japanese armed forces whilst his family died in the bombing of Hiroshima. But it is made evident that both these characters have come to terms with the trauma of the past. What they struggle with is an amnesia that follows these events, making them desperate to hold on to the memories of their troubled pasts. The man remarks, “I’ll think of this story as of the horror of forgetting” about the woman’s tale of her lover, while simultaneously acknowledging that the memory of their meeting is doomed to be lost to time.

There is a certain resignation to fate, the inevitability of forgetting throughout the film. The characters themselves are aware that their temporary tryst will eventually be forgotten just like all their past trauma, despite the intensity of their emotions. However, there is a certain subtle resistance to the act of forgetting peppered throughout the film, almost subconsciously. There are lots of mentions of Hiroshima in the film, even for one set in the city, so much so that the audience is made aware of an effort to resist forgetting its past horrors. Also, the constant comparison and relations are drawn between their respective tragedies come across as an effort to battle such amnesia and the preservation of a collective act of witness.

The treatment of the subject of this film was revolutionary and the experimental methods used were integral for such a film to be made. The adoption of certain cinematic techniques to properly illustrate the concepts of memory, time and forgetfulness was something that would have to revoke traditional methods of filmmaking, which is what Resnais achieves in this film, setting up a new tradition of cross-temporal, non-linear narratives which would continue to evolve and lead to new advances in Cinema.

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