Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Nevers My Love

In the late 1970s, Denver was blessed with four full-time commercial art houses: the Flick in Larimer Square, which was actually twin theaters, the Esquire, the Vogue, and the Ogden. It was at the Ogden, in Capitol Hill, that I first saw Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) on a double bill with Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957).

The Bergman film had what I thought was a quite unearned emotional impact. Directing the then 77-year-old Victor Sjostrom, whom Bergman revered, as Professor Borg left poor Ingmar unable to pull the trigger on his character. His efforts to make old Borg seem undeserving of our sympathy were overwhelmed by Bergman's obvious love for Sjostrom. The film's ending is almost laughably out of keeping with everything that comes before it. Alas, a considerable number of critics still regard it as a Bergman masterpiece.

Perhaps it was watching Resnais's film first that made Wild Strawberries seem such a come down. I must admit that I found everything about Hiroshima Mon Amour fascinating. Its unremitting seriousness was certainly part of its appeal to me. Though Resnais became somewhat stigmatized by his manner of fractionating narrative and so completely displacing temporality, it works beautifully in Hiroshima Mon Amour. And I found myself taking strong exception to the way the film was received by three critics I esteemed highly. Dwight Macdonald, John Simon, and Vernon Young all argued that the film failed to hold the ground it had so boldly staked out, namely that there was common ground between the experience of the catastrophe of Hiroshima and the experience of a Frenchwoman's unhappy affair with a German soldier.

Twenty years later, having seen the film a few more times and holding firm to my conviction that Resnais had resolved the thorny problem of Marguerite Duras's apparent equation of the experiences of the man from Hiroshima and the woman from Nevers, I watched the film again with a friend who was at least as impressed with it as I had been. I found myself drawn again into Resnais's extraordinary mastery of interweaving time frames and locales, making the absolute most of Duras's fixated and obsessive dialogue. But cracks began to appear in the edifice of my admiration for the film.

At first, I tried to deny that Duras and Resnais had actually intended to equate the two people's experiences, that the drama was really about how the woman convinces the man that she is capable of understanding the suffering of Hiroshima because she, too, had known suffering. But however great her suffering (and Resnais certainly makes a case for it), the suggestion that it somehow made it easier for her to grasp, even in personal terms, what happened in Hiroshima is sheer effrontery. What if Duras had decided to write a story about the Holocaust and had told it in the terms of a love story involving a Frenchwoman (since Duras was a Frenchwoman) and a Polish Jew, set in the town of Brzezinka, aka Birkenau? Would anyone have warmed to such a film if Duras had decided to devote three-quarters of the film to the Frenchwoman's attempts to persuade the Polish Jew that she had suffered?

I still think highly of the film. Resnais had already been an accomplished documentary filmmaker when he made Hiroshima Mon Amour. He was admittedly* reluctant to make any kind of film about Hiroshima. Francoise Sagan was approached to write a treatment but she declined because she felt inadequate to the task of using Hiroshima as her subject. Duras, obviously, had no such compunctions, and her script is the weakest element of Resnais's film. The facile uplift of the film's finale, in which the two characters, by now exemplars of Hiroshima and Nevers, appear to have accepted each other's likenesses, rather than their differences, is as phony as that of Wild Strawberries, where Professor Borg appears to have made peace with his past. When peace comes at so high a price, can war have been all that bad?

*In a 1986 interview for Le Cinema des cineastes, Resnais restates his original claim that "Of course, what has to be filmed is the impossibility of filming it."

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