Lim Kai Tjoon analyses how in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the past is not always an inaccessible aspect of our lives but an embodied experience in the present.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour is a film saturated with the impossibility of perfect remembrance. Memory is illustrated as fractured, refracted, and contentious through the two unnamed characters, ‘He’ (a Japanese man) and ‘She’ (a Frenchwoman), in their brief affair that temporally dredges up more than sixteen years of her unresolved past. Over the course of about twenty-four hours, ‘He’ and ‘She’ explore the traces of personal and collective traumas in an embodied erotics of history. Often confluent, these memories pose important questions regarding the ethico-political relationship between loving and knowing. As I will argue, this relationship has, at least in the film, produced antagonistic effects. Loving is often accompanied by a desire to come to know the Other, which constitutes an ideological approach that seeks to master and overcome the unknown beloved. This circumscribes the lover and his beloved in an unequal power dynamic that is experienced, among others, along gendered lines especially since ‘She’ lacks access to the male character’s own memories beyond the odd comment about his occupation and marriage. Here, it is arguable that knowing is codified as a masculine prerogative while being known disempowers the feminine as an object of knowledge. To love the Other then becomes a confrontation of the Other, and one’s claim to knowledge is a collision between two subjectivities vying for control over the right to know. Yet, in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, ‘She’ manages to find an alternative outcome that resists this quality of negation in an antagonistic relationship with him––the right to self-knowledge and determination by emphasising the imperfect sutures of her forgetting.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour’s opening scene foregrounds a jarring distortion of memory that parallels the male character’s attempts to dispute her alleged recollections of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. During sex, through visual and haptic means, they perform a temporal disjointedness that seems emblematic of a lack of total access to the Other’s history. Prefaced as “reconstitutions” in the original French script, the couple puts on display an almost illicit erotics of historical trauma that seem to undergird and gestate the hidden bodily intimacies in the museum exhibits of war. Resembling the couple’s exchange, the museum is a space that actively represses memory even as its displays simultaneously evoke the past. The temporal distortions of the film are also dramatically heightened by the asynchronous music and its accelerating cadence in which shots between buried bodies glistening with debris, presumably in the throes of death, and the couple’s embraced sweaty forms alternate, in turn reflecting their conflicting assertions of memory. Sex, that is, the erotics of haptic apprehension, thus becomes a negotiation of power that re-members (historical) trauma through pleasure.
I take a brief detour to montage theory. In conceptualising its ontology, Sergei Eisenstein argues that “the collision between two shots that are independent of one another” serves as a metaphor for the dialectical synthesis of meaning (26, my italics). Exploring the colliding elements within a shot is also necessary for the shock factor to deliver the film’s ideological message. This message is, as I have argued, grounded in gendered relations of power in the film. After sex, ‘She’ comments that “like you, I am endowed with memory”. The provision of memory is an effect of collision. The collisions between shots, bodies, speech, and time grate against scenes of love and death, Self and Other, and signal the intended contrapuntal effect of the film. ‘She’ mentions walking through the museum, which is also a space of reconstitution that attempts to contain the fluidity of time through curated exhibitions and knowledge. It is arguably a compartmentalisation of history that parallels the man’s efforts to contain and subsequently invalidate her knowledge of the past. Collisions are also present in the museum’s conceptual space: between knowing/not knowing and the objective real/the curated truth. Similarly, her visual perception of the exhibits re-creates the conflicting historicities that collide with his contestations of her memory through visual means. As sight is a process heavily associated with the masculine, her usurpation of the visual is curtailed by his counterclaims of her nothingness-to-see. Since the desire to know the Other is precipitated through this antagonistic, loving relationship, the confrontation between ‘He’ and ‘She’ mimics the museum’s conflicting nature, and his negation of her knowledge is a postulation of masculine power that he seeks to preserve.
A curious nuance to the couple’s initial dynamic emerges here: ‘He’ is not able to access Hiroshima’s past because he could not have been present while ‘She’ possesses this impossible possibility of stitching together––of re-membering––the fractured strands of the visceral past. This nuance is perhaps the reason for inducing (and deferring) in him a consuming desire for her. As the feminist philosopher Judith Butler writes, “desire transfigured through projection gives rise to the idealized contour or morphology of the body” (372). This idealised mould of his beloved is what fascinates the man intensely because it is the form which he has complete access to and mastery over. As ‘She’ has initially claimed knowledge of Hiroshima, a knowledge that even ‘He’ does not possess, he desires to rebalance that unsettled dynamic by fitting her memories within this idealised morphology.
Unlike the male lover who clings to a position of power over his beloved, ‘She’ breaks through her disempowerment to reclaim the right to self-determination through knowledge. Love, for the female character in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, means opening herself to self-knowledge by coming to terms with her fractured and traumatic past. When ‘She’ acknowledges her past together with her Japanese lover, she does not, like him, indulge in a process of retaining power over the Other through exclusion. Cathy Caruth suggests that “history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own, that history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s trauma” (24). This intimacy of historical/personal trauma means that ‘He’ is also implicated to bear witness to her trauma in a similar way that ‘She’ has initially viewed his personal-turned-collective trauma of Hiroshima during sex, though he actively denies her that knowledge. Caruth further argues that in the film, “the act of seeing, in the very establishing of a bodily referent, erases […] the reality of an event. Within the insistent grammar of sight, the man suggests the body erases the event of its own death” (29). In a psychoanalytical vein following Freud, what Caruth suggests here is that trauma involves a simultaneous return to, and disengagement with, the repressed past––a dis/collision of temporal positionalities. If his sight is effected as an erasure of her memory, then ‘She’ is able to negotiate her Japanese lover’s annulling sight by re-experiencing her traumatic past with and through him. Her embodied performance of these memories draws attention to the fractures of imperfect recall that liberate her, at one point causing him to admit that he will “remember [her] as the symbol of forgetfulness” and to “think of this story as the horror of forgetting”, referring to both the experience of war in Hiroshima and the warring tensions in one’s incapability of fully knowing one’s history.
Pivoting back to the tactile motif, ‘She’ becomes in touch with herself and her lover. When she recounts her descent into madness at the café, self-knowledge seems to be reconstituted partly from grasping herself and partly from embracing him at different intervals. In this case, both their bodies become texts; they become intertextual. The way she ‘reads’ her past trauma through touch is not predicated on a return to an insular existence, but rather involving his shared participation as her dead German lover in Nevers. Consequently, this intertextuality that ‘She’ espouses reflects the transversal fluidity of knowledge and love across time. Unlike him, her history is not simply fixed in the past and intransigent or inaccessible. It is also an embodied performance within her present moment as a temporal drag to the past. When ‘She’ allows another to bear witness to her trauma, however fractured, she successfully reclaims autonomy over her life knowing that she has purposefully, intimately, and erotically opened herself to herself through her collision with the Other. Borrowing Duras’s words, ‘She’ “carries within her, with her, this vague yearning that marks a reprieved person faced with a unique chance to determine her own fate” (111). And this future oriented determination will always be re-membered by her imperfect sutures of forgetting––of finally “consigning” her conflicting past to oblivion.
Butler, Judith. “Desire.” Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia Thomas
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2007.
Duras, Marguerite. Hiroshima Mon Amour. Grove Press, 1961.
Eisenstein, Sergei. “The Dramaturgy of Film Form [The Dialectical Approach to Film Form]”. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 8th ed., edited by Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 23–40.
Resnais, Alain, director. Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Zenith International Film Corp., 1959.
By: Lim Kai Tjoon