The Cinematography of Alain Resnais
Director Alain Resnais and his team of cinematographers in Japan and France make a number of groundbreaking choices in Hiroshima Mon Amour which serve as the backbone for a film that Kent Jones calls, “… The first modern sound film in every aspect of its conception and execution… One of the most influential films in the short history of the medium, first of all because it liberated moviemakers from linear construction.”
Indeed, Resnais wastes no time intercutting between different periods of time in his breathtakingly beautiful opening montage in which Elle and Lui discuss the World War II bombing of Hiroshima over shots of actual footage from the disaster. The film started as a documentary endeavor by Resnais until he decided the context of the Hiroshima bombing would best be displayed as the backdrop of a fictional narrative rather than the focus of a nonfiction piece. However, Resnais borrows from his own nonfiction background to great effect in the film’s opening segment as he skillfully collects and documents real-life footage to intercut with his extreme close-ups of the two lovers in bed. A shot of the bomb reaching 2,000 feet into the troposphere, and subsequent shots of its devastating effects on the landscape and people it so viciously and expediently changed forever, are at once stunning and horrifying, and as a result, as we are brought into the psychological world of the two lovers, we are unmistakably placed within the conflicted realm of their surroundings as well.
Quentin Tarantino famously helped popularize nonlinear storytelling in modern American film culture with Pulp Fiction in the mid-90s, and ever since, American audiences have become savvy viewers of filmmaking that jumps between periods of time, but for Resnais, the technique was fledgling and no doubt difficult to pull off. The editorial board of Cahiers du Cinéma lauded the effort, considering it a cinematic watershed with Jacques Rivette saying its rupturing of rhythm was akin to contemporary classical music. The director’s courage to take the film into this new realm of nonlinear structure was rewarded because it was done well, and the reason it was done so well, was because of Resnais’ choices in cinematography.
The film opens on an ECU of the lovers intertwined, their mangled bodies writhing in pleasure – or it agony? – it’s hard to tell, and that’s the point. These are the bodies of the lovers, and the victims of Hiroshima as well, they are at once at the height of sexual bliss, and the depths of wartime suffering. Fallout ash covers the bodies, then cleansing water washes it away. By choosing to open the film within this frame, Resnais is displaying two periods of time concurrently, and signaling that in the 90 minutes to follow, linear structure will not define the narrative.
For the first 19 minutes of the film, neither Elle or Lui is shown in wide angle. Throughout the entire opening montage in which Resnais intercuts between his documentary footage and the lovers in bed, the latter is always shown in shallow depth of field close-ups. These close-ups work well in lockstep with the voice-over work provided by screenwriter Marguerite Duras, whose dialogue could easily be mistaken with prose, casting a contradictory hue on the film’s grotesque and gorgeous opening sequence and serving to plunge us into Elle’s world of love and loss. As we are shown the conflicting images of death and the sexuality (birth) of the lovers in bed, so too does Duras’ dialogue offer stark conflict – “I saw the hospital – I’m sure of it./You did not see the hospital in Hiroshima. … Four times at the museum./What museum in Hiroshima? … I saw the newsreels. I saw them./You saw nothing.” Here, Lui is trying to convince Elle because she was not in Hiroshima when the bombs fell, that she did not understand the devastation of his homeland. But Lui has very little understanding of Elle’s past, which includes her fair share of devastation that has left her with a very good understanding of what loss means. This conflict is shown quite briefly, but very effectively, when Resnais match-cuts a shot of Lui’s hand in bed and the lifeless hand of the German Soldier, shot dead in Nevers. The match cut is followed up with just a snippet of Elle laying atop the German’s dead body in France, but it is more than enough to signal to the audience that Elle has experienced devastation and loss.
At the 27-minute mark, Elle and Lui leave the hotel and discuss whether they will ever see each other again. Resnais marks the potential departure of acquaintanceship with an extreme wide-angle of the front of the hotel in which Elle is almost a small white dot in the center of the frame. Resnais matches the extreme wide with another during the scene in the Casablanca, when another potential suitor chats up Elle while Lui looks on desperately, finally understanding that his time with Elle is over. Resnais seems to despise wide angles in the film, only going extreme wide within the context of the lovers’ narrative on those two occasions. The shots are jarring, but similar, as Elle is a tiny fraction of the frame at its exact center, and both their rarity and similarity are signals that Resnais is expressing his two major plot points in an otherwise plot-free film.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is decidedly anti-war, a theme that rests at the heart of the narrative despite its more overt aspects being shuffled off to the background of setting, however, there is one moment in the film in which Resnais makes an overt effort to make his theme known through the camera lens. During the filming of the “Peace Film” in which Elle plays a small part, Resnais takes his camera inside a protest march. While intercutting protester shots with onlooker shots, and BTS shots of cam ops capturing the action, Resnais takes a moment to settle his camera on a set of passing protest signs. As the signs pass, they deliver Resnais’ anti-war stance with some extremely biting language that includes references to the intelligence of man, or lack thereof, when it comes to political decision-making. It all passes in a couple of shots, but the sequence is startling in its straightforward argument aimed at the world’s political class. Basically, Resnais calls politicians fools, and beyond that, murderers, but because he does it passively, by merely aiming his lens at passing protest signs, he stands as a documentarian of the moment, rather than its auteur. The landscape of French Cinema at the outset of the New Wave was nothing if not political. One wonders if Resnais’ choice here was an act of courage, or a way to step around potential blowback from the industry. If his characters, Elle or Lui, explicitly insult politicians, Resnais stands solely in their political crosshairs later. If, however, he simply documents the outraged sentiments of a people who were destroyed by an atomic bomb, he avoids potential scrutiny by standing behind far more sympathetic protestors.
Finally, there are two more cine choices Resnais makes that I found noteworthy. The first is his choice to film Elle from behind when she describes the hate she felt in Nevers, “Madness is like intelligence. You can’t explain it. It comes over you, consumes you, and then you understand. But when it’s gone, you no longer understand it at all.” Within the context of the scene, Elle turns to the road and away from Lui to watch a pair of motorcycles pass as she delivers her lines, but the choice to remain in this shot, and not cut to one of her in close-up is stunning. It goes against every law of cinematography and stagecraft. The actor delivering a line should rarely, if ever, face away from the audience. But here, Resnais does it, unabashedly, and to, in my opinion, poor effect, because we are unable to see Elle’s expression as she delivers her line. We miss out on her emotion, and left to define it for ourselves. A filmmaking tool best left to theme, or a film’s conclusion, but not dialogue. A character’s emotion is her lifeline to the audience, by disconnecting this paradigm temporarily, Resnais makes a mistake.
Conversely, at the 1:09 mark of the film, Resnais offers what I consider the finest shot of the film. Elle and Lui have just discussed the German solider and Elle’s time in Nevers in the bar, and have headed to the street to part ways for what they believe is the last time. Elle stands in ECU in the right half of the frame, profiled, her visage pointed right – or moving forward, in cine parlance (left-to-right moving forward, right-to-left moving backwards). Lui stands behind her, occupying the left half of the frame and is out of focus as she speaks about parting ways. Cine-wise, it’s clear her intention is to leave him behind. However, he has other ideas, and steps forward into focus, as she goes soft. As the rack focus takes our eyes from her to him, she states, “Stay away from me.” This shot is perfection, so much so that American filmmakers have been borrowing it for years. The shot is a well-choreographed dance between visual storytelling, as well as dialogue and theme. The cam ops move our eye as the character delivers a contradictory request as our theme of love and loss is deeply explored. For as much as Resnais fails when he turns Elle away from camera, he makes up for it – and then some – with this marvelous piece of filmmaking.