Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais: Hiroshima mon Amour – Book and Movie (1959/60) Literature and War Readalong July 2011

How do you talk about war? How to put it into words, into pictures? How to tell and show the unspeakable, the horror, the atrocity? How much can you know about something that you have not experienced? These are but a few questions Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais explore in the book and the movie.

Hiroshima Mon Amour is maybe the most difficult book of this readalong to write about. A summary wouldn’t do it justice. I was amazed once more how good it is, how profound and how the book and the movie seem like two different ways of exploring, with two different languages, the atrocity that we call war. What is fascinating is how they seem to converse with each other.

In 1959 a Japanese man and a French woman meet in Hiroshima. They are both a bit over thirty and happily married. They spend a night together. It is shortly before the woman’s return to France. She is an actress who has come to Hiroshima to play a nurse in a movie on peace. They make love and talk. First about Hiroshima, then about the past of the woman. They part for the day but he follows her and they spend another night together, stay awake, spend  time in a tea house. During the second night, the woman tells the man the whole story of her past in Nevers and her tragic first love. She hasn’t told anyone this story before because there was never anyone like her first lover after that until this day.

I’m glad I read the book again before watching the movie. It was interesting to see how different it is when we first imagine something and when we then see it as well.

During the initial part of the movie we hear a voice-over. The woman tells the man everything that she has seen in Hiroshima. In the news at the time, in the museum during her stay. When you read it, you see in your imagination what you have seen before in documentaries or on photos but the movie shows you how it really was and on the other hand you have the man’s voice telling you, that you have seen nothing, know nothing. There is no replacing the actual experience.

The first pictures show bodies, parts of bodies, first covered in what looks like fall out, then in sweat. This reminded me of Resnais’ documentary Night and Fog. It is the same visual language that tries to show us what violence does to the body, that tries to capture the devastation. Hiroshima Mon Amour seems also to say that war and love can be equally destructive. There is violence in aggression and in passion.

What struck me is that we do not know their names. At the end they give each other the name of the places in which their mutual tragedies happened. She calls him Hiroshima, he calls her Nevers.

One of the themes of the book and the movie is how the collective and the personal tragedies are linked. While Hiroshima and WWII stand for a collective tragedy, Nevers stands for a personal tragedy. This is one of the achievements of  Hiroshima Mon Amour. One approach in war stories or war movies is to pick one exemplary person and tell his/her story. We understand the individual far better, can identify far better with one person’s story but the large-scale of the collective should not be forgotten. Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of the rare movies/books who manages to show both and make clear that they are interdependent.

For those who have not read the book, I would say that it is a valuable addition and it is fascinating to see how they complement each other. First there is the script, including proposals by Marguerite Duras, then she adds information on what scenes Resnais finally chose, plus there is an annex in which Duras goes deeper, explores the woman’s story, gives it more density. I liked the appendix, that was mostly dedicated to the woman’s story, a lot.

There are many things that are worth discussing and I am looking forward to hear your thoughts. One question that has been on my mind since I re-watched the movie is the choice of the Japanese actor. He struck me as looking quite European. I had kept the appendix for last and was glad that Duras mentioned this choice, saying they had wanted to make a more universal statement with this. They didn’t want people to think “That’s an attractive Japanese” but “That’s an attractive man”. I was not completely happy about this. It’s a sad fact that whenever a person from another continent is casted in a European movie, the film directors think of the European taste and choose someone less typical. This is unfortunately exactly how exotism works. I think Resnais and Duras were honest in their attempt but I’m not sure it was ok.

Other reviews:

Emily (Evening All Afternoon)

Litlove (Tales from the Reading Room)

Richard (Caravana de recuerdos)


Hiroshima mon Amour was the seventh book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Elsa Morante’s History. Discussion starts on Friday August 26, 2011.