Monday, 21 April 2008

Narcissus at the movies

Hiroshima mon amour

A week has gone by since I saw this film for the first time, somewhere underground in a private film club run by a friendly relative.

Afterwards there was talk, tea and cake, and more talk. I'm not familiar with the mass of criticism written on this film, but I have poked about on the web since, and from the little sample I've read and the response of some in the audience, I suspect that my view of the film may not be shared by the majority, though a few may feel similarly.

If you haven’t seen the film, the following may be of little interest, but nonetheless you can read a short synopsis and find links to reviews on IMDB.

A very short version of the plot: A married French woman who is in Hiroshima to perform in a film about the bomb, has an affair with a married Japanese man. She tells him of an affair she had as a young woman with a German soldier in Nevers, during the occupation of France.

One fellow in the audience wrote later, amongst other things:  "The more I have thought about the woman in Hiroshima, the more I have questioned whether the events she described really happened. Or whether they really happened to her, since we know that such events did take place. We are in the area of false memory, or simply, fabrication. She is an actress, playing an actress, playing an actress, &c, and I don't remember what he was, but he had great suits."

I also found myself suspicious of the account she gives of her past to her lover, and impatient with it too!

Her being an actress also occurred to me as possibly relevant. The man in the film was an architect, a good career in postwar Japan one might imagine, not just in Hiroshima, but also in the many other cities which saw similar loss of life through firebombing.

Perhaps his career is as much a clue as hers. She turns disaster into a performance, he finds a good opportunity to shine in the rubble. There was a good deal of attention paid in the film to filming the modern postwar architecture of the museum and the hotel.

During some of the cake and tea conversations after the main discussion, a couple of further points came up. A key one for me was the meaning of the title. 'Hiroshima my love' emphasises for me the narcissistic possessive nature of her response to the story of the city and the bomb. And her response is to the story as she didn't experience the event. The story of the deaths of tens of thousands at Hiroshima becomes a reflection of her own story of suffering in Nevers, France, a story which involves the death of another, but is firmly focused on herself.

Similarly the architect's pleasure in hearing that he is the first to hear her story of her past in Nevers is a narcissistic possessive response, a mirror of her response to visiting the city. While he said to her 'you didn't see Hiroshima' he fails to realise that he has not truly heard about Nevers. 

Rather than being about internal memory, the film seems more about the stories we tell about the past. Her memories are experienced through the story she tells. The film within the film is a story about the bomb. The museum is a story about the bomb, her description of the exhibits being 'as accurate as possible' only serving to underline the exhibition's removal from the actual event. (It reminds me of a joke by a comedian whose name I've long forgotten, where he came home to find he'd been burgled. Everything had been stolen and replaced with an exact replica. Edit: found his name - it was Steven Wright.)

The most glaring omission from her story of Nevers, of the consequences of the affair with the German soldier, is the complete absence of any account of her choice in entering into the relationship, and in continuing it over some time. It was described as something that happened to her, rather than something she chose. The pictures show her as active, constantly going to the soldier, but her words never examine her part in shaping events, rather describing herself as a victim of circumstance.

Similarly the accounts of the Hiroshima bomb are stripped of circumstance, of individual responsibility. She speaks at one point in generalisations of how these things will always continue to happen as long as one nation seeks to dominate another, one race another, one class another, without any reference to who tried to dominate who either in Asia or in Europe. And later the parade of banners staged for the film within the film follows this pattern of avoiding specifics of politics and history to describe the bomb as the result of humans being more developed scientifically than politically, and conclude that 'therefore the human species forfeits our respect'. So what begins as a commemoration of mass murder ends in having no respect for humanity, and within the language of vague pacifism can be heard the seeds of totalitarianism.

At the one point in her wandering the streets monologue where she fantasises about staying with her lover in in Hiroshima, she describes her urge as transgressive and morbidly destructive. She applies this to a fantasy of the future, but as she is substituting the soldier with the architect in her speech, surely this characterisation should be tried out on her past in Nevers, and if Nevers is a narcissistic substitution for Hiroshima, do we bring the characterisation back to wartime Japan?

There is a strong contrast between the absence of recognition of personal choice in her account of Nevers and the choices she makes in her affair with the architect in Hiroshima. While she seems swept off her feet by love, she is determined to maintain control. Her departure is set, she will return to her briefly mentioned husband and children. She plays at loss of control. As she walks at night she imagines him taking her by the shoulders and her losing control, but without him giving her this excuse she doesn't make the choice she fantasises about. If he had acted as she'd fantasised, would she have followed through? It seems doubtful. The fantasy of being married in to her German soldier in Bavaria seems equally doubtful. Certainly it seems unlikely as a lost happy ending, considering that all indications are that her appetite for morbidly destructive transgression predated the death of the soldier.

The above illustration was commissioned for a film column in the Irish magazine Hot Press in 1992.

More cinematic narcissism in a follow up post on The Lives of Others.

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