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.

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

  1. What a wonderful post, very sensitive and clever. It’s exactly what I recall from Hiroshima mon amour.

    I’ve read this book twice and I loved it. Duras managed to describe the undescribable.

    • Thanks a lot, Emma. I think it is one of the reviews with which I struggled because I wanted to capture how bok and movie capture and achieve other elements.
      I’m also glad I found back to Marguerite Duras because she truly is such a great writer but that biography I read did totally put me off

    • Thanks, Carole. I think the book does add another layer and is interesting because this isn’t the case in which the movie is based on the book but it is to one part a script and to the other a collection of ideas. the dialogue is very lierary, almost like a poem, it’s great to read it.

  2. I only watched the movie.
    1. “You’re destroying me. You’re good for me.” Barf! I found the voiceover to be too pretentious.
    2. She says she has “dubious morals” – in other words, a typical French woman (just kidding, Caroline)
    3. The scene in the tea room where she recounts her doomed first love was wordy, but interesting. When he suddenly slaps her I think he probably woke up most of the Japanese men in the audience and/or they wished they were the actor.
    4. This movie has the slowest chase scene in filmdom. She walks, he appears, she walks, he appears, etc. I was on the edge of my seat!
    5. OMG that old lady spoke! Is that allowed in this movie? Oh wait, the dude in the night club hits on her, so I guess other people are allowed to talk.
    6. I couldn’t help but wonder that if the movie was in English, would some of the lines be laughable? Subtitles sometimes give weight to pomposity.
    7. I thought the actor was appropriately Japanese.
    8. I liked the chemistry between the leads.
    9. I do not regret watching it, but I do not think it is a good movie.
    10. Why didn’t he get a back-story?

  3. I guess we have to agree that we don’t agree and that is actually quite good, as it does provide some points for discussion.
    -This is an extremely literary and also symbolic movie, a movie that you have to “read” (I don’t mena the subtitles in your case). There is no attempt at being realistic in the voice-over. I think the monotony of the voice wants to show the numbing effect it has when we are exposed to so mayn images and pictures of war.
    -Comment 3 is interesting insofar as it makes me wonder how many Japanese people saw this movie and whethr it was a movie that was apprecaited in Japan. If anyone reads this it would great to get input.
    -That didn’t stay with me to be honest.
    -It is pretty much a dilogue, that’s true.
    -From a French persepctive i isn’t laughable at all.
    -I didn’t think he looked very Japanese.
    -The chemistry between the leads works very well and I agree that if, as Duras sates in the appendix, the man had been looking more typically Japanese, it might have worked less.
    -It’s an excellent movie but we don’t need to agree.
    -We know that he was in the war during the bombing of Hiroshima, apart rom that we don’t know much. I guess, it has someting to do with him being part of the collective, while she stands for the individual story. Duras and Resnais chose to tell the civilian’s point of view. If the focushad been on the soldier, it could have been reversed and we would have heard his story which you might have preferred.
    I find the stories – which I didn’t even menion as such – of those women who had affairs with Germans very sad. I’m not sure this shaving which was common practice was justified. I find it quite shocking. What happened to the men who had affairs with German women?

    • Thanks for being so understanding of my crassness. I see no reason why they could not have told both stories.

      Men who had affairs with German women? I can’t visualize that. There were very few German military women in France. And any that were would have been extremely unlikely to have had affairs with French men. The comparison should be to French men who collaborated – result: death.

      I did specifically mention how Japanese men would have responded to the slaps, but I really meant any man.

      • Marguerite Duras is, as far as I see a writer who brings her own experience into her books. She was a woman in France during WWII, waiting for her husband to return (she wrote an account/novel on that called The War) and not a Japanese soldier. Soldiers who had affairs with German women… Why not?
        I didnt think the slap was justified.

  4. This is a fantastic, insightful and comprehensive review. Thank you so much!

    In some ways the book and movie sound very different…good just different and I can understand this considering the powerfully rich and complex emotional depth of the story. War is a horror and an atrocity and I cnnot see how a person could come out of it without being remarkably changed.
    I’ve never read this book nor seen the movie. Your review has me convinced I have to do both…and I will…not quite sure when but I will.

    Again, wonderful review!

    • Thanks a lot, Amy. I cannot imagine either that the experience wouldn’t change you totally. I think it makes sense to read the book first and then watch the movie. To keep the appendix for last also made a lot of sense. I hoe you will get to it sooner or later.

  5. Amazing post! I actually don’t read much about wars. It really astonishes me how committed you are to the readalong! Kudos!

    And now I feel I should the book. I owe it all to your review!

    Thanks 🙂

    • Thanks, Dovereader. It is to a certain extent easier to read the book. Some of the pictures in the movie, the whole beginning, are drastic and shocking.
      Yes, I am quite dedicated.
      I grew up with a father who fought in a war as a young man and came out, changed forever, highly traumatized and I remember my grandmother’s accounts of the German occupation of Paris and how they fled to Brittany. I also try to raise awareness. In my opinion, only awareness will help to prevent.

  6. I really enjoyed the scénario, Caroline, and am now looking forward to watching the DVD before too long (of course, I’ve had the DVD for a couple of years without watching it yet, so no promises) and reading more Duras in the future. Liked how “visual” the screenplay read and how the visual elements provided a contrast with the characters’ inner worlds. You make a great point about the collective and the personal tragedies, of course, something that Bolaño also takes on in 2666 to great effect. Looking forward to the others’ posts on the work.

    • I’m glad you liked it and I do hope you will read more of her. Some of her novels are extremely good. The element of images is very important. How we imagine things, how they change when we see them, how different it is whether we see it in a movie, a photo or in real life. I think it’s done very well and in a very subtle way. I’m curious to read your review and hope others will manage as well.
      I like the movie a lot but it has its drastic moments. The original footage isn’t easy to watch. You like documentaries, it should be interesting to see for you what technique Resnais uses. This was his first feature film. “Night and Fog” is the documentary he just shot before. It’s oustanding and only 30 minutes long.
      Yes, go on, remind me that I still have not read “2666”. I have a feeling it will not happen in August… La Storia is a chunky book.

  7. I didn’t really like it that much. I will say though that this style of film making isn’t my favorite, nor is poetic, symbolic literature my cup of tea. So i must admit that i too found some of the lines quite silly and pretentious. 

    I liked the theme of the horror of forgetting. And I thought her story was distressingly moving – and did like the latter part of the book where that was more fully explored – but the framing device of the relationship between the two leads left me cold. I do wonder what the Japanese thought about it. To me, despite the opening sequences, and however moving her story, this is not a film about Hiroshima. The melding of the two doesn’t gel for me.

    • It is interesting to read your point of view. And I can understand that symbolic, poetic isn’t to everyone’s liking. It did work for me but I must also admit that what started as a movie about Hiroshima became more and more the story of one woman’s ordeal. We go from the collective to the individual.
      I think you can also watch/read this in many different ways. I could also have focused on the affair instead of the war theme. I found the love story very believable. What i did not find believable is the fact that they both seem to have had many affairs. For one reason or the other they didn’t strike me as people who had such “lose morals” as she said. I’m looking forward to Litlove’s review and am curious whether she will focus more on the topic of war or passion.
      I’ll have to see if you reviewed it on your blog and will then link it. Thanks for joining in any case.

  8. Thanks for hosting this readalong, Caroline, and sorry to be a few days late! Hiroshima mon amour is fast becoming one of my favorite films of all time, so it was great to have a little motivation to pick up the screenplay soon after having first written about the movie.

    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.

    This is such an interesting ending and one I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around. There is something about it I find quite disturbing, but in other ways I like it. After all the emphasis on memory and forgetting—how even telling her story to this one-night stand is instrumental in making her forget her first love—I suppose it shows the flip side: there comes a time when we no longer consciously REMEMBER what it was like during our formative experiences, but they have nonetheless become part of us, incorporated into who we are.

    Like you say, there’s SO much to discuss here. What an excellent book/film.

    • Thanks for participating, Emily. I’m curious to read your thoughts.
      I also think that they are excellent, the book and the movie and they ut me in the mood to read Duras again.
      I find the woman’s realizing towards the end that she “betrayed” her first love quite tragic. And your comment makes me think that there is a parallel. Like personal tragedies, collective tragedies end up being forgotten.

  9. If only this book was published in English! I’m more of a book person than a movie person, and you’ve made this sound really good. I like the idea of telling the personal and the collective war stories side by side. I’ve linked to your post on War Through the Generations.

  10. I’m sorry to have missed this–from your review and the others it sounds like quite a powerful film and one that would be good to discuss in a group. My library had the script and I still have it at home, so perhaps I’ll read and watch later and come back to the posts.

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  13. I recently read Duras’s The Lover, and its vivid imagery was at times mesmerizing. It was similar to Durrell, whom I have begun to read as well.

    • Thanks for visiting, Esa. Duras is a powerful writer. Moderato Cantabile is my favourite. I might choose The War (La douleur) for next year’s readalong. It’s been a while since I read The Lover. I’ve only read Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet which is fantastic.

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