Hiroshima mon amour (1959) is a groundbreaking portrait of a world come undone. Even more memorably, thanks to the brilliant precision of Emmanuelle Riva’s performance, it’s a study of a woman unraveling. In this first leading role in an astonishing cinematic career that’s led all the way to another Amour, Michael Haneke’s intimate 2012 drama (for which the eighty-five-year-old actor has been nominated for an Oscar), Riva overwhelms the frame. It’s a riveting, multifaceted performance, and it is responsible for much of the emotional heft of Resnais’ dramatic narrative debut. In a work that has no shortage of startling imagery, the range of feelings that run across Riva’s face is perhaps the most unforgettable element. She is so central to the texture of the film’s aesthetic that, on its release, critic Jean Domarchi said, “In a sense, Hiroshima is a documentary on Emmanuelle Riva.”
The film is both a document of a ravaged city and an intimate romance. The lovers are a French woman (Riva) and a Japanese man (Eiji Okada), both married to others. We first see them as naked bodies entwined on a Hiroshima hotel bed. He is an architect who lives in the city; she is an actor there to work on a film. We never learn their names. For us, their love story is initially a relief from the actual footage of human devastation in Hiroshima with which Resnais opens the film. Yet there is turmoil here too—Riva’s character is haunted by her own experiences of World War II.
At first, Riva is stable, sensual, thrilled by Okada’s every touch. But the film, with its eloquent script by Marguerite Duras, proceeds to gradually chip away at her defenses, until she’s all exposed nerve. Inhabiting this character was surely a tall order for Riva, especially since, in this deeply political and philosophical work that questions how to live in a world burdened by the horrors of war, people are as much stand-ins for historical forces as individuals. You can see this in the film’s final exchange: “Hiroshima. That’s your name,” she tells him. “That’s my name. Yes. Your name is Nevers,” he says, referring to the city in France where the female character grew up, and the locus of her personal trauma. Up to the challenge, Riva creates a piercing, fully fleshed-out portrait of a woman at a crossroads.
Commanding in every frame, the thirty-two-year-old actor imbues her character with a consistently surprising combination of earthiness and guarded pragmatism. Married with children, she is both defiant and plagued by guilt about the affair. As splintered as the film she’s in, Riva is the physical embodiment of a shattered world. As filmmaker Jacques Rivette said, “In the same way that Hiroshima had to be rebuilt after atomic destruction, Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima is going to try to reconstruct her reality.”
That reality comes spilling out in a bravely performed sequence set in a bar, basically an extended monologue punctuated visually by flashbacks to the character’s tormented younger years in Nevers, which come at us in shards. (Riva later revealed that, like her character, she was tipsy on beer when acting the scene, on Resnais’ instructions.) It’s a remarkable evocation of grief welling up from far below the surface, every line reading trembling with the weight of dark memories; as filmed in ravishingly lit black and white, Riva’s wide, watery eyes become pools that reflect that past. Her performance reminds us that we cannot exist outside of the time we live in, that we are caught up in historical currents beyond our control.
The following clip is a superb example of Riva’s utter control. She and her lover have just left the bar where she has opened her soul to him, and must face the reality that they may never see each other again. Then Resnais follows her back to the empty hotel, where Riva wordlessly conveys the anguish of being stuck between a terrible past and an uncertain future.