In the opening shot of the film Hiroshima Mon Amour, two intertwined nude bodies fill the screen. No time or place marks these bodies except the absent backdrop of the city Hiroshima. The soft gray matter that falls on the bodies first appears as atomic ash and then as sensual sweat. Marguerite Duras, in her 1959 screenplay of the film, describes this scene: “their embrace—so banal, so commonplace—takes place in the one city of the world where it is hardest to imagine: Hiroshima.” The name of the city connotes destruction, loss, and death; yet, evacuated of everything, Hiroshima is a site of rebirth and renewal. The scene of erotic, sensual bodies eventually gives way to scenes of the Hiroshima museum built in 1955 on Ground Zero, the site of atomic oblivion. The living bodies mingle with camera shots of the museum, full of salvaged, destroyed objects and footage of dying, burnt bodies. This opening sequence suggests both presence and absence in its placement of two lovers in the site of absence— a site where bodies had once been traumatized and obliterated—and in the contrast of the close-up shots of sensate, embracing bodies to the sterile museum and its artifacts. While the Hiroshima museum literally occupies the site of the destruction, the film clearly suggests that the modern museum and its technology—the photograph, the newsreel, the reproductions—fail to capture the real or convey the unfathomable suffering and loss that was experienced by the once living bodies of Hiroshima.
from the middle
The absence of the obliterated city and the dead haunt the present; thus, living bodies carry the past in them. These living bodies cannot completely fill or displace absence, but by negotiating past and present, the physical, sentient body does what the symbolic, or the representation, cannot do, which is to make the past felt in the present. Judith Butler suggests that “[p]laces are lost— destroyed, vacated, barred—but then there is some new place, and it is not the first, never can be the first. And so, there is an impossibility housed at the site of this new place. What is new, newness itself, is founded upon the loss of original place, and so it is a newness that has within it a sense of belatedness, of coming after, and of being thus fundamentally determined by a past that continues to inform it." The film Hiroshima Mon Amour makes the body, which emerges from the ashes, a living, material location and the site of newness and remembrance. After destruction and loss, the present body lives because of, and in spite of, the dead. The film’s fixation on hands emphasizes the body’s ability to reach out from itself and be in touch with other bodies; as the camera moves from hands to other hands, from one body to another, and among various locations in both the present and the past, the film exposes the threads that link bodies and posits how we make sense in our mingling with the world beyond the immediate self.
My reading of this film derives, in part, from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s belief that the human is “a being that can only get to the truth of things because its body is, as it were, embedded in those things." The body, he believes, “is a fabric in which all objects—and other bodies—are woven,” and “it, is at least in relation to the perceived world, the general instrument of my comprehension." As the body interacts with the material world—with places, objects, other bodies, it perceives and experiences the present as it simultaneously remembers the past; and through the intertwining of past and the present and the entanglement of the internal and external world, the body can empathize with other bodies and comprehend loss by and through its own experience of it.
from the end
While Riva’s acute sense of loss and suffering makes her sensitive to what (and to who) she comes into contact with, her bodily memory is triggered by chance encounters. She is touched by a lover and so remembers the past; but memory easily falters. In the final meeting of Riva and her lover, as they prepare to leave the city, they move away from one another—both emotionally and physically—and begin to appear as abstractions to one another. Duras explicates this final scene in her screenplay: “He looks at her, she at him, as if she would look at the city, and suddenly, very softly, she calls him. She calls him from afar, lost in wonder. She has succeeded in drowning him in universal oblivion." Like the city of Hiroshima and its unrepresentable past, the two figures now embody absence as they look at one another from afar—at a distance. Riva says to him, “I’ll forget you! I’m forgetting already! Look how I’m forgetting you! Look at me.” Duras writes “[t]hey look at each other without seeing each other.” Just as she did in the museum, she looks without seeing. She leaves her lover behind as she does the city; he has become the city. By no longer recognizing his body, his physical presence, she can no longer see him, feel him, or remember. She forgets him. But forgetting, like remembering, is not permanent. While the unresponsive archive, the museum, and the memorial exist as permanent reminders of the absent past, the body only temporarily forgets; because it houses memory, the sentient body has the ability to not only remember the past, but to feel it. And as living material, the body fills spaces of absence and serves as the occasion, the living location, for remembering and for comprehending, if only temporarily, the experience of loss. As the film foregrounds the body as the living being in which the past can be remembered and felt, it does so through the use of the cinematic, a medium that, like the body holds on to memories, and is immediate and palpable, but extinguishable.
This is not just a paper i wrote. This particular film, these particular words, these particular images, these particular ideas--stay with me and feed into the way I think and feel and see. I don't get completely entangled with everything I write about, but I am entangled with this. I have revisited this film many times--like a place that I need to return to over and over again to really understand. I continue to think about it, write about it, watch it, and share it with others. I am not finished with this.