Film Studies: From out of the ashes: see Resnais' masterpiece and weep

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The Independent Culture

We see two bodies coated in ash, until a dissolve turns that dust to moist gravel. They are lovers, but how can Hiroshima be anyone's love? We hear a plaintive woodwind, signalling, and a piano fluttering to escape. We do not know whose bodies these are, but a man's voice says, "You saw nothing at Hiroshima." A woman's voice responds; she lists the things she saw. But the man insists. And years later, if with the same certainty I hit the wrong key on my word processor, I get the AOL home page. It has two lead stories: a photograph of the Hiroshima explosion, and "How This Bomb Changed It All". Beside that is a picture of peppers and tomatoes, and a promise of tips to make your own salsa. You can try it all the way "from mild to nuclear".

When Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, mon amour opened in 1959 it received enormous praise, not just for itself, but as evidence of how close we were to 1945. In the late 1950s, bombs, with more fall-out than that generated over Japan, were being tested in our atmosphere. Unprecedented cancers were being observed in south-west Utah, the first dwellings in the downwind line from the test site, north west of Las Vegas. One reason why those victims kept quiet was that many of them were Mormons, and Mormons have a history with the state of silence or acceptance. They are raised not to draw attention to themselves. This was calculated in advance by the state.

As cineaste and potential victim (the Cuban missile crisis was only three years away), I was transfixed by Resnais' film in 1959, yet the measured text - the reiteration of "You saw nothing at Hiroshima" - felt studied and literary. I have looked at the film again, as my small contribution to the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima, and I want to disown earlier doubts. "You saw nothing at Hiroshima" is the gentle, literal truth insisted on by this masterpiece, a film that only underlines the complete absence in this time of anything like a political cinema.

So what I am asking is that you see this old film - probably for the first time; both it and Resnais, I fear, have gone out of fashion. See it and weep.

And begin with a sense of the rhythm of the language - the script and the dialogue were by Marguerite Duras, the novelist. Let me suggest that Hiroshima, mon amour is a musical. I say that to be shocking, and because Hiroshima, mon amour is so distant from The Sound of Music. Still, the way to appreciate the film is to see that the line of imagery is in a ravishing harmonic counterpoint with the words, and with the film's music (composed by Giovanni Fusco and Georges Delerue).

It's more important that you respond to that rhythm and to that quality of recitative than that you identify with the Japanese man (Eiji Okada) or the French woman (Emmanuelle Riva). She is an actress in Hiroshima to make a film about peace - what else? She is a girl who in Nevers, in Seond World War France, had a love affair with a German soldier. He was shot; she was humiliated as a collaborator. All that happened once, in Nevers, but in Hiroshima as she sees the twist of her Japanese lover's arm in sleep she is reminded (and the film cuts to) the same shape in her German soldier's arm. We are so touched by resemblance. So the recitative makes use of movie editing, too, and Nevers and Hiroshima are put in apposition, or wounded proximity - to such an extent that she stands for that French town, and he is Hiroshima.

It is a great movie, but not just because of this musical form. Before Hiroshima, mon amour, Resnais had made documentaries: at least two of them - Nuit et brouillard (about Auschwitz) and Toute la mémoire du monde (about the French Bibliothèque nationale) are superb. But what is most moving about Hiroshima is how the documentary-like elements are transcended by the human. It is at the same time a measure of the apolitical and the political, that the Riva character gauges world events by what happened to her. We all do. It is one of our feeble ways of enduring the anonymous role that politics wants us to accept. Yet our selfishness - so human - is also petty and terrifying, and a leading explanation for the steady way in which politics gambles with the word. What Resnais' film teaches us, I think, is our chronic indifference to our own larger fate. Sixty years later that innocence has to be seen and felt. We can make disaster, to be sure; but we have made beauty like this film, too. Or do you prefer salsa?

'Hiroshima, mon amour' (PG) is available on DVD (Nouveau Pictures), £19.99