Everything’s Exploding

Hiroshima mon amour After Oppenheimer

Hiroshima, mon amour, the 1959 collaboration between director Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras, explores the limits of feeling with profoundly disturbing results.

Arab children, Hiroshima Memorial Day billboard. Hermannplatz, Berlin.

During the film’s opening minutes, evidence of the devastation caused by the American bombing of Hiroshima stares us in the face.

Yet we cannot help but recognise, as these horrific images pass by, that the matter-of-factness captured by the “objective” camera lens is not the only thing being communicated.

Shots of burned, mutilated, and deformed human bodies serve a double figurative purpose.

On the one hand, they synecdochially represent all those who have suffered because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the other, they are metaphors for the subjective experience of passion as it consumes the film’s lovers.

Every time the iconic close-up of fingers with polished nails clutching at a lean, naked back gives way to archival and contemporary footage of Hiroshima, we struggle with this troubling implication.

Although the lovers’ voices may sound calm and collected, their embrace is undeniably hot. Their passion consumes them as surely as a flame does paper.

But this passion is repeatedly complicated by the documentary shots to which it is juxtaposed.

The depiction of their naked embraces was risqué for its day, even in France. At a time when miscegenation laws still existed in places like the United States, its interracial aspect pushed buttons.

And even though there is none of the nudity that would later inspire prurient interest in European art-house cinema, the scene’s intimacy, with the camera hovering above the lovers, makes it arousing.

Subsequent shots of the lovers — sensitively portrayed by Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada — talking in bed and the shower powerfully reinforce the film’s erotic charge. We only see the parts of the body that are considered acceptable for general viewing – backs, shoulders, arms, and necks – yet these exude such powerful sexual energy that it would be awkward to watch the film with strangers.

If Hiroshima, mon amour’s opening scenes provided the simple compare-and-contrast montage familiar from silent-film classics like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, the juxtaposition could lead viewers to deride the lovers’ obliviousness to the horrors of war or perhaps inspire hope that life goes on despite everything.

Duras’ remarkable screenplay has other aims, however.

Despite the superficially radical opposition between the intimacy of the bedroom and the exposure of Hiroshima’s public spaces, between the fictional depiction of a love affair and the brutal truth of the war’s lingering impact, she keeps finding ways to blur the boundary between them.

That ever-so-French concept of le petit mort is deliberately conflated with the too-big-to-comprehend death inaugurated by the atomic bomb.

In this regard, it’s crucial to recall that Christopher Nolan’s surprising box-office smash Oppenheimer received an R-rating in the United States because of its sexual content.

Even in 2023, it was sex that was too hot to handle, not the capacity to destroy civilisation as we know it.

The film’s “money shot”, a nuclear explosion which Nolan made a point of simulating with practical effects instead of today’s par-for-the-course CGI, would have been deemed perfectly fine for teenagers to see.

In a sense, Nolan is the doppelgänger of his eponymous hero.

Both men were celebrated for bringing a team together in order to shepherd a daunting project to fruition. Whereas Oppenheimer’s direction made sure the atomic bomb was successful, Nolan’s made sure that a film in which the only thing happening in many scenes is conversation about technical challenges was still entertaining enough to triumph at the global box office.

The director made us come, both in the literal sense of risking a trip to the movie theatre – Oppenheimer continued to do well at the global box office months after its release – and in the figurative sense of satisfying the public’s urge to see a recreation of the most consequential explosion in history.

Unfortunately, neither Christopher Nolan nor J. Robert Oppenheimer are sufficiently concerned with getting their audience to come its senses.

For much of the film’s long running time, we see close-ups of the physicist with a pained expression on his face, the image of a relentlessly self-reflexive Faust.

Oppenheimer tries to get his superiors to understand that nuclear weapons are quantitatively and quantitatively different. Yet he presses on with his work in spite of his misgivings, unwilling or unable to stop short of proving that his team was right.

Analogously, Nolan could have told a different story, in which moviegoers’ desire to see a mushroom cloud was not fulfilled or in which they were at least forced to confront the destruction it left in its wake. But Oppenheimer doesn’t even bother to reconstruct the stock footage of structures being leveled at the Trinity site, much less give even the slightest glimpse of what Hiroshima or Nagasaki looked like after being destroyed.

Nolan’s need to prove that “grown-up” films can still pack theaters after the pandemic prevailed over concerns about whether it would be wise to represent the building of the bomb as a success, its impact contained by the screen.

Hiroshima, mon amour takes a different approach. Instead of trying to depict explosions, whether large or small, it concentrates on what happens in their wake.

That’s why the film implicitly starts during the pillow talk after the lovers have come and why the vast majority of the images we see of the bomb’s impact show gruesome wounds instead of the conflagration itself.

For Duras, sex is never a distraction, never a means of looking away from horror.

Instead, it’s an invitation to recognise that all human beings can slip the bonds of reason and do things – we learn that both of the film’s lovers are cheating on their spouses – that they will struggle to justify retroactively.

A true cinephile, Nolan does seem to have learned a lot from Hiroshima, mon amour.

Were it not for the intrusion of the NSFW work content that won Oppenheimer its R-rating, his tale would be less interesting.

It is primarily through sex that the complex motivations of his protagonist come into focus.

A considerable portion of Oppenheimer is devoted to two different hearings, the one in 1954 during which the physicist’s security clearance was revoked and the one five years later when his betrayer Lewis Strauss was being considered for the position of Dwight David Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce.

Nolan cuts back and forth between these two hearings, often juxtaposing them to each other directly.

Although they testify to what happened to Oppenheimer and some of his key collaborators after first the United States and then the Soviet Union became nuclear powers, portions of them appear early in the film, long before the linear build-up to the Trinity test, thereby complicating our sense of the narrative.

So do scenes in which we see a young Oppenheimer worrying about a future that is still far off.

The fractured chronology of Oppenheimer owes a great deal to the innovations of the French New Wave and the work of Resnais more specifically. So do the connections it discerns between private passion and public service.

In the short time between the flash of the first atomic explosion and the arrival of the soundwave it generates, we see Oppenheimer regarding the unprecedented spectacle through his protective glasses.

The only sound is his laboured breathing, which calls to mind how people sound after having an orgasm.

When Oppenheimer’s affair with a known communist is brought up during the 1954 hearing, we are suddenly confronted by a moment of surrealism.

We see him and his lover having intercourse in the same chair from which he answers the committee’s questions, with his clothed wife watching them from behind. This shows us how exposed he feels.

But it is the physicist’s female partner whose body draws the most attention.

By contrast, what stands out about Hiroshima, mon amour is the balance it strikes between male and female vulnerability. Like Duras’ famous novel The Lover, Hiroshima, mon amour showcases reciprocal desire.

In The Lover, a teenage French woman living in colonial Indochina has an affair with a wealthy Chinese-Vietnamese man a decade older than her. But this is not the typical story of innocence being despoiled. She wants as much as she is wanted. Her lover’s body is exposed as her own.

The same holds true for Hiroshima, mon amour. As laudable as this reciprocity may be from the standpoint of feminism, however, it leads to a false equivalence.

In the case of The Lover, the fact that the young woman is white and French gives her privileges her lover can never achieve. In Hiroshima, mon amour, both lovers are trying to cope with traumas from the war. But hers, no matter how keenly felt, is of an entirely different order.

The singular achievement of Hiroshima, mon amour is that it recognises this fundamental incommensurability, yet still makes the comparison.

In the film’s famous opening conversation, the woman tells her lover what she has seen during her time in the city. He replies that she has seen nothing.

The reason for this tension does not become clear until we see their faces and understand where they are coming from, literally and figuratively.

As their post-coital exchange continues, he returns to this theme, asking, “Why did you want to see everything in Hiroshima?”

“It interested me,” she rather blithely replies. “I have my own idea about it.” Then, she explains that “looking closely at things” is a skill that “has to be learned.”

Even in 1959, it would have been likely for someone who had suffered under imperialism to take offence at this reply. In 2023, it would provide more than sufficient grounds for social-media critics to “cancel” the actress.

To its credit, Hiroshima, mon amour tackles this seemingly tone-deaf response to historical trauma head-on.

We see how the portion of Hiroshima preserved as a memorial to the atomic bomb’s victims has become a travel destination.  Inside a tour bus, an attractive female guide smiles while explaining the sites. The actress is making a film about the global anti-nuclear movement with the city as a backdrop.

These shots of Hiroshima perform double duty, serving as both a universal message – human beings are perversely fascinated with their capacity for destruction – and as a critique of the Western tourist’s mindset, which depends upon a taken-for-granted superiority and the distance from suffering it facilitates.

But the gaze of the Western visitor does not go unmet.

At one point, the Japanese man, who is later revealed to be an architect, turns on the light to look more closely at the actress’s naked body. He probes her with his eyes and his words after doing so with his body.

There is no equivalent in Oppenheimer.

Although Nolan’s film drifts momentarily into surrealism at various points in order to remind us of the horror his team has unleashed – a blinding flash during Oppenheimer’s hearing, an image of the planet from outer space as it is consumed by fire – this acknowledgement takes the form of a substitution more troubling than any of the ones we perceive in Hiroshima, mon amour.

It’s the people who made the bomb we see suffering in the film, not the people who suffered because they were bombed.

In one scene, Oppenheimer briefly has a vision of his wife’s skin peeling off the way that so many of the victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did. While it makes sense for him to fear an eventual boomerang effect from the weapon of mass destruction he shepherded into production, the erasure of Japanese skin is extremely telling.

Oppenheimer appropriates the suffering of its future victims for his protagonist. The physicist’s actions – and inaction – are transmuted into passion.

That’s why it matters that we see as much of the Japanese architect’s skin in Hiroshima, mon amour as we do of the French actress. Archival footage of the victims and recreation of their injuries on the set of her film would be less impactful if we weren’t reminded over and over what their skin would have looked like before being violated.

Hiroshima, mon amour reminds us that self-reflexivity always involves an other. Whatever we willingly suffer in the throes of sexual ecstasy, there is always someone else outside that scene, suffering too.

In his introduction to The Lover, Viet Thanh Nguyen describes Duras’ colonial romance novel as “a writing that inhabits, exhibits, and critiques desire and passion and power and the contradictory self.”

The same could be said for the screenplay she composed for Hiroshima, mon amour, so brilliantly realized by Resnais.

Oppenheimer is only interested in the contradictory self of the famous physicist and his collaborators.

But Hiroshima, mon amour keeps reminding us what a privilege it is to be able to suffer the contradictions of selfhood instead of its brutal annihilation.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.