The seminal-ovulary date-night ordeal of the fresh-baked French New Wave, this moody, swoony benchmark was one of those movies — and in 1959-60 you had scores to choose from — that could remake your young life and redefine your ideas of what’s tragic, romantic, and grown-up cool in the postwar world.
Working from a radically self-involved screenplay by Marguerite Duras, erstwhile documentarian Alain Resnais stepped into the new street riot of modernist cinema with innovative weapons — impressionistic editing, subjective time shifts, abstracted visuals, erotic shadowplay — and crafted the first film to juxtapose disastrous erotic passion with the political disasters of the mid century.
Emmanuelle Riva is a haunted French actress on location in Japan; Eiji Okada is a married architect indulging her for a two-day impromptu, and as their memories and stories commingle, the past — of the Hiroshima bombing and of occupied-Europe guilt and heartbreak — rises like floodwaters. Bedevilingly stylish even as it flirts with neurotic navel-gazing, Resnais’s ruminative classic is merely the first salvo in his career’s exploration of why we shape life into storytelling — and how sometimes we fail.
All of his characters are contrivers of meaning, taletellers compelled to rebuild the scaffolding of memory and history as a way of insisting on their own significance. The significance of the war’s cataclysmic legacy is, on the other hand, never in doubt.