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A cornerstone of French cinema, Alain Resnais' first feature is one of the most influential films of all time. A French actress (Riva) and a Japanese architect (Okada) engage in a brief, intense affair in postwar Hiroshima, their consuming fascination impelling them to exorcise their own scarred memories of love and suffering. Utilizing an innovative flashback structure and an Academy Award®-nominated screenplay by novelist Marguerite Duras, Resnais delicately weaves past and present, personal pain and public anguish, in this moody masterwork.

Alain Resnais
Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas, Pierre Barbaud, Bernard Fresson
Writing Credits:
Marguerite Duras

Not Rated.

Academy Awards:
Nominated for Best Screenplay.

Fullscreen 1.33:1
French Digital Mono

Runtime: 90 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 6/24/2003

• Audio Commentary With Film Historian Peter Cowie
• Interviews with Director Alain Resnais
• Interviews with Actor Emmanuelle Riva
• Isolated Music and Effects Track
• Excerpts from Marguerite Duras’ Script Annotations
• 32-Page Booklet Including Liner Notes

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Hiroshima Mon Amour: Criterion Collection (1959)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 27, 2003)

After the horrors of Alain Resnais’ documentary Night and Fog - with its images of Nazi concentration camps – I thought I’d get off easier with his first feature film, 1959’s Hiroshima mon amour. Through the movie’s stark but sensual opening shots of two bodies intertwined, I figured this love story might avoid the unpleasantness of Fog.

For the most part, I was correct, though the picture went through some similarly unpleasant moments. The movie begins with an argument between the two off-screen lovers. The woman insists that she saw sights of devastation and grotesqueness in Hiroshima following the detonation of the atomic bomb there, while the man claims that she witnessed none of this. While the debate, the flick shows us what she describes, and that includes deformed and physically marred people.

Soon we meet the lovers in bed together: a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) who came to Hiroshima for a film and a Japanese architect who also fought in the war (Eiji Okada). Apparently the pair just met and got it on anonymously, and the movie shows them as they get to know each other and discuss their recollections of the destruction of the city. However, it’s her last day in Hiroshima, so they have little time together. He wants to see her again before she leaves, but she declares a refusal to do so. However, he tracks her down on the movie set and they continue to chat as he attempts to convince her to stay in Hiroshima a little longer.

Though she resists heavily, he finally gets her to spend more time with him. Soon we learn both are married to others, but their passion for each seems strong. He learns more about her issues when she goes into a nearly hypnotic state and reveals the forbidden love she enjoyed with a German soldier back in Nevers, France, at the end of the war.

The film clearly emphasizes the character of the woman, which seems like both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, the architect does little other than enable the actress to tell her tale. His role seems to exist mostly to declare his love for her and to get more details of her life out of her. Okada brings surprising depth to the part, since he really has little to do. He makes the architect seem more full-blooded than he might appear on the page; though we don’t know much about him, we buy his obsession with the actress and his attempts to elicit more from her.

For the most part, Hiroshima remains Riva’s movie, though, and she presents a fairly dazzling performance. Variously aloof or sensual or playful or frighteningly lost in painful memories, the actress clearly comes as damaged goods, and Riva seems unafraid to make us sense her interior agony. The character remains something of an enigma, but Riva brings nice emotional complexity to the part.

Alternately lovely and horrible, Resnais brings across the ambivalence of the post-war world well. Despite the occasionally terrible sights, he makes the photography a masterpiece of framing and composition. With the exception of the unpleasant documentary images, virtually every image in the film comes across like a mini piece of art. That makes the impact of the emotional dilemmas all the more effective, as they play against such sumptuous photography. Occasionally stark, periodically romantic, sometimes atrocious, the film always presents a strongly compelling sense of visual identity.

I went into Hiroshima mon amour with little sense of what to expect. In it I found a surprisingly involving and non-linear tale that avoids simple resolutions and easy answers. The movie doesn’t feature a great plot or concise characters, but it provides a great sense of intrigue and emotional depth along with some of the most effective cinematography I’ve seen.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+ / Audio C+ / Bonus B

Hiroshima mon amour appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, I felt very pleased with the high quality of this visual presentation.

Sharpness presented no concerns at all. From start to finish, Hiroshima looked nicely distinct and well defined. The image betrayed no issues related to softness and seemed crisp and concise. In addition, I saw no problems connected to jagged edges or moiré effects, and edge enhancement seemed to be absent.

When print flaws appeared, these appeared related to historical footage. Except for light grain throughout the flick, I noticed no concerns during the shots of the lovers and other images clearly created expressly for Hiroshima. Some of the film of Hiroshima and its victims displayed moderate signs of defects like specks, grit, and lines, but these scenes comprised a relatively minor portion of the film, and the flaws created no real distractions.

The black and white image looked quite well rendered. Dark tones appeared deep and dense, and contrast generally seemed nicely delineated. Low-light shots were clean and properly visible, as they lacked any excessive darkness and looked natural. The folks at Criterion did a terrific job with this material, and Hiroshima offered very positive picture quality.

The monaural soundtrack of Hiroshima mon amour seemed less satisfying, but it remained acceptable. Speech often came across as somewhat rough and sibilant. I don’t believe any intelligibility issues arose, but the lines were a bit thicker than I’d like. Effects played a minor role in the film. Though they were somewhat tinny and trebly, they remained acceptably accurate. Music was a more important factor, but the score showed some of the same concerns as the rest of the audio. The music seemed moderately tinny and without much breadth. Light hiss cropped up at times, but that wasn’t a major issue. Given the vintage of the material, the audio for Hiroshima still appeared solid enough for a “C+”, but it displayed a series of minor concerns.

For this release of Hiroshima mon amour, we find a small selection of supplements. These launch with an audio commentary from film historian Peter Cowie. A frequent contributor to Criterion presentations, Cowie offers a typically complete track. He goes over interpretation of the film, elements of its composition and creation, biographical notes for Resnais and others in the production, various story points, and many other issues. Cowie presents the material in a concise and well-considered manner, and he never seems excessively dry or pedantic. Cowie’s commentary gives us a nice perspective on the film and it genuinely adds to the experience.

Next we get information from some of the film’s main participants. In the Alain Resnais Interviews we find two separate pieces with the director. “Cinepanorama” lasts five minutes, 41 seconds and comes from 1961, while 1980’s “Le Cinema des cineastes” runs 10 minutes, 50 seconds. The first seems quirkily entertaining, mostly because it follows the hipster mode where Resnais doesn’t really tell us much and we hear pretentious queries like “Is the cinema alive, dead, or about to be born?” The 1980 piece seems more helpful. The interviewer is long-winded, but at least Resnais offers some concrete information, especially as he traces the early evolution of Hiroshima.

The following section provides two Emmanuelle Riva Interviews. The actress first appears in a five-minute and 40-second clip from 1959. The second and longer piece stems from 2003 and lasts 19 minutes and 17 seconds. As proof that this kind of interview never changes, Riva tells us little in the first one. She starts with a recap of her character and the movie’s plot and then gives us some bland comments about her hoped-for future career and experiences on Hiroshima. In the 2003 piece, however, Riva proves more illuminating. She goes over how she got cast in her role and provides useful anecdotes about working on the film. She reflects on parts of it as well as its overall legacy. All in all, the new interview seems helpful and informative.

In addition to an isolated music and effects track, the DVD includes Screenplay Annotations by Duras. Laylage Courie reads these bits, which appear alongside parts of the film. They last eight minutes, 19 seconds as we hear the screenwriter’s exposition on the movie. The segments deal with the flashback sequences of the Riva character in her basement. They expand the personalities somewhat and make for moderately interesting listening.

Finally, the package includes a 32-page booklet. Film critic Kent Jones writes about the movie’s making and its legacy, and we also find a 1959 round-table discussion about Hiroshima with Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Jean Domarchi, Pierre Kast, and Jacques Rivette. Russell Lock provides a short biography of composer Giovanni Fusco, and the booklet ends with Marguerite Duras’ “portraits” of the flick’s two lead characters. As usual, this is a terrific package of text.

A subtle and moving effort, Hiroshima mon amour creates an effective examination of people and place mostly via its sublime visuals. Really more of an impressionistic piece than a traditional film, Hiroshima winds its way through its minor plot with effortless beauty. The DVD presents very good picture with average sound and a reasonably nice package of extras highlighted by a terrific audio commentary. Clearly this kind of visual flick won’t work for everyone, but for those with an interest, Hiroshima mon amour is well worth a look.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4193 Stars Number of Votes: 31
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