[On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was tested at Trinity Site, New Mexico, an explosion with numerous aftereffects and meanings. This week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of such Trinity connections, leading up to this special weekend post on a foreign film that’s also profoundly American.]
On two ways an overtly foreign film sheds light on American histories.
The groundbreaking French New Wave film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) may be the most non-American text on which I’ve ever focused in this space. Directed by French filmmaker Alain Resnais, best known for his Holocaust epic Night and Fog (1955), with a screenplay by French novelist Marguerite Duras, and telling the story of the Hiroshima atomic bombing and its aftermath through the lenses of a French actress and a Japanese architect, including flashbacks to her wartime experiences in France and his during and after the bombing, the film is hugely historical, international, and thoughtful, relevant and meaningful to any viewer to be sure. But it nonetheless feels as if there are literally dozens of critical and theoretical lenses that could be applied to it before an AmericanStudies perspective would come to mind.
Yet there are both specific and overarching connections we can make between this foreign film and American histories, without even having to engage (as I hope I have all week) with the atomic bomb’s manifold national resonances. On the specific level, the film’s flashbacks for its female protagonist (known only as She) highlight the ways in which her individual experiences of the war in France (and particularly her relationship with a German soldier and its destructive consequences) defy easy national categorizations and divisions. Those flashbacks, in turn, allow her to connect with the Hiroshima victims in a subtle but powerful way (that I won’t spoil here), adding one more international border-crossing to her identity and the film. I’ve written before about how fully war both depends on and constructs such national categories and divisions, and about the catastrophic results of such constructions (such as the Japanese internment, to name only one example). The more we can consider instead experiences like those of the Revolutionary era loyalists, who crossed their war’s boundaries just as the film’s heroine does, the more of a full and accurate sense of war we’ll have in our collective memories.
On a more overarching level, Duras’s screenplay offers a sustained and nuanced engagement with the conjoined themes of history and memory, and more exactly with how much the past’s presence—individual and collective, which are in the film not two separate threads but one intertwined pattern—impacts and shapes every part of our present, even (if not especially) our most intimate relationships. That concept is of course obvious and inescapable in Hiroshima, where not only the bomb’s destructions but the half-life of its radiation means that the past will be literally present (if seemingly not, as that linked article notes, overtly damaging) for hundreds of years to come. But the film makes clear that the past’s echoes are just as strong for its French protagonist, and that indeed she is profoundly affected by both her own personal and national pasts and by those she has encountered in her new city. Anyone who has read this blog for even a few posts knows how much work I believe we Americans have to do when it comes not only to engaging with our histories (particularly our darkest ones), but also and just as importantly grappling with all their effects and meanings in our present identities and communities. I can think of few texts that portray these themes more evocatively and successfully than Hiroshima Mon Amour.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?
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