Written by: Marguerite Duras
Directed by: Alain Resnais
Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas, Pierre Barbaud, Bernard Fresson
- Running audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie
- Vintages interviews with director Resnais and actress Riva
- Interview with actress Riva from 2003
- Excerpts from Duras’ screenplay annotations
- Isolated music/effects track
- Essay by critic Kent Jones
- Excerpts from a 1959 Cahiers du Cinema roundtable discussion on the film
- Essay by Russell Lack on composer Giovanni Fusco
- Character portraits by Duras
Released by: Criterion
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.
My Advice: Own it.
[ad#longpost]A French actress (Riva) finds herself in Hiroshima working on a movie. There she meets a Japanese man (Okada) and the two engage in an incredibly passionate and short love affair. However, she has a secret–something to do with a former love she had during the Second World War…something which destroyed her. In a place that itself has seen its share of destruction, the two of them will have to rebuild their lives based on this
brief stab at love…and memory.
This is a very different, very challenging film. It’s not like you would expect anything less from the man who brought us what is arguably the definitive documentary on the Holocaust, Night and Fog. The film actually starts with what is, in essence, a mini-documentary on the nuclear blast at Hiroshima, though the entire thing is seen through the eyes of the French observer/visitor, who is processing all of this information long after the fact, long after the city has rebuilt itself. Preceding this is a very haunting image that ties the destruction of Hiroshima to the woman’s personal destruction that she suffered in her homeland–the image of two naked bodies embracing while being showered with ash. However, this tie is never more explicit than that, and the rest of the film is a dance of intellectual ambiguity. Is her ability to rebuild just a parallel to the ants and other creatures that crawled from the soil the day after the bomb dropped? Is it really that simple? No. Nothing in Resnais’ film is.
Riva’s performance is remarkable considering it’s her first time on screen, though she was theatre-trained. Okada’s part is even more impressive. Throughout the film I was wondering, “Hmmm, I wonder how hard it was to find a Japanese man who spoke French?” Must have been hard enough to cast Okada and have him learn all of his lines phonetically. I find it hard enough to act in a language I know–how you can do that with words that are nonsense in your own ears is a mystery to me. But you’d never know it to watch him act, is the thing.
Criterion provides an excellent edition of the film with a fairly extensive range of bonuses to go along with this, which is welcomed, especially with such a dense film to peruse. First up is the commentary from film historian Peter Cowie, and he is extremely informative (albeit a bit dry, as though he were reading from a pre-prepared catalog of comments) in all areas, discussing how Duras and Resnais came to work on the film, how the actors were snagged, and provides some insight into the symbolism of key scenes.
Two interviews are provided with director Resnais, one from around the time of the film’s release and the other much later (this one is audio only). He speaks very frankly about how the film went from a documentary to almost never happening to becoming his first feature. He also sheds some light over how it feels to go into a foreign country and being able to take only one crew member along. Riva provides two interviews, one from the time of the film and the other recorded this year. This is a fascinating juxtaposition, as you go from the young first time screen actress, who seems a bit wowed by the entire proceedings, to an older woman, an artistic veteran, much later, who while still possessing of a delightful smile and laughter is more sober and reflective of the experience.
A very interesting feature is a series of annotations that Duras made on the screenplay, based on a suggestion by Resnais, that she annotate the screenplay as though the film had already been made. These are read for you while the scenes in question from the film play underneath. Very interesting to hear the thoughts of the author on her creation and what thought she puts in the minds of others. It’s almost a poetic audio commentary on a film that’s highly poetic to begin with. Surreal, but helpful.
Lastly, you’ve got a thirty-two page booklet that’s stuffed with good content. Two essays, one on composer Fusco, accompany a transcript of a 1959 roundtable discussion on the film from Cahiers du Cinema and some of Duras’ character portraits.
As stated, this is not a film that’s easy to delve into. With its structure, it almost resists dissection. I seriously recommend viewing it multiple times with long breaks in between to digest. Between that, the features, and the Criterion label, it’s a no-brainer to own. Definitely worthy.