“Happy” isn’t a word that comes to mind when we ponder Alain Resnais’s harrowing, innovative Hiroshima Mon Amour. However, according to Emmanuelle Riva, it was a joy to make.
At the Reflet Medicis movie theater in Paris, the stage and screen veteran shared mostly glowing memories of the intense production in Japan and France. “I can still feel the happiness of those days, it hasn’t left me,” She told a rapt audience. “It was so extraordinary to live that adventure.”
Elegant and lively at age 87, Riva introduced a screening of the New Wave masterpiece under the auspices of the Paris Cinéma Festival, which launched a series showcasing 50 of the greatest female roles. More than deserving of its place in the program, Hiroshima Mon Amour presented Riva with a unique challenge in film history. And, in only her second movie appearance, she rose to it.
Her character in the movie, a French actress, embarks on a torrid affair with a Japanese architect in Hiroshima, thus reawakening trauma from a doomed liaison with a German soldier during WWII. Within the context of a nonlinear movie, Riva movingly conveyed one woman’s passions and sorrows while still grappling with the film’s abstract themes of memory, loss, and identity.
“I was very pleased with the role because it will always be modern,” Riva said of the complex, liberated woman she played. “Her freedom exists naturally within her.”
Penned by Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour also used Riva’s crystalline voice to hypnotic effect through extended voice-over monologues. “Marguerite has her own rhythm,” Riva noted. “There’s a precise, childlike quality in her writing that you can’t ignore. You can’t escape it, but it’s actually a pleasure.”
Still, Riva wanted to set the record straight about those famous voice-overs. “Not long ago,” she recounted, “I was listening to some old interviews and I heard Alain Robbe-Grillet talking about Hiroshima… He said that Marguerite Duras had sent out cassettes of the text. I must have listened to them—and there was nothing left for me to do but mimic her. And he laughed and laughed.”
“Well, I never heard these cassettes,” She attested. “It’s totally untrue. And I’m very glad to have the chance to tell you this!”
With a subtle glimmer of accomplishment in her eyes, she explained, “I didn’t have to imitate. That doesn’t interest me at all. I like to create.”
Over the course of a month of filming in Japan and two weeks in France, Riva found plenty of opportunity to create, both onscreen and off: “I took pictures while Sylvette Baudrot [the script girl] and Alain Resnais figured out how the film would be shot. I had about 4 or 5 days and I walked around the entire city that was still largely in rubble. I photographed everything I saw… I ended up putting together a series of very precious photos, because soon afterwards the city was totally reconstructed.”
Her stunning street photography has since formed the basis for an exhibition and a book. Riva’s own interest in documenting the changing face of Hiroshima no doubt informed her contributions to a movie preoccupied with history as both a collective narrative and an individual experience.
As for the production itself, Riva fondly recalled the atmosphere of “sympathy” that reigned among the cast and crew. Resnais directed his actors with sensitivity: “[He] would come up close, talk with each of us intimately, and quietly tell us what he hoped to achieve in the scene.” The actress also praised her co-star, Eiji Okada: “He learned all his lines phonetically… His work was just amazing and he has a magnificent presence in the film.”
Riva shared only one negative recollection of the production, but a painful one at that. During the drawn-out tearoom scene, interspersed with numerous flashbacks, Riva’s character breaks down as she tells the story of her tragic first romance. Reacting to a moment of borderline hysteria, her lover slaps her with such force that the entire restaurant turns to gape. “This was very difficult, because the camera was on a crane that would drop on a certain syllable of a word—it had to be that precise,” She explained. “So, I received quite a few slaps. And I got very angry, because I’d had enough of being slapped.”
A key part of Riva’s most difficult work didn’t take place on the set, however, but during a week in the recording studio: “The film was entirely dubbed, since we had a camera that squeaked.” As for re-recording dialogue after the fact, “I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s very tough, working from recording with lots of background noise.” The conviction and unsettling honesty of the dialogue scenes in Hiroshima Mon Amour stand out as even more impressive, considering that the emotions had to be recaptured.
In the 55 years since the movie’s acclaimed release, nearly all those involved in the production have passed away. Riva noted, “I’m the last one left from Hiroshima Mon Amour,” apart from her friend Sylvette Baudrot, the film’s script girl. The actress lamented the recent death of Alain Resnais this past March, “I was really stunned. I’d grown to believe that he would live forever.”
These days, when Riva is called upon to watch Hiroshima Mon Amour, as when Argos Films invited her to present a new restoration at Cannes, she never does so willingly: “It’s as though I were watching somebody else.” Just as the film reveals the surreal distances injected into our experiences by the passage of time, Riva observed, “We each have many lives. And Hiroshima is in another life for me.”
Nevertheless, the actress—who estimated that she’s on her seventh life—expressed her pleasure at seeing so many young viewers in the audience. (This is the point where she smiled at me in the front row and I nearly passed out.) Asking how many first-time viewers were present, she exclaimed, “Wonderful!” at the significant show of hands.
As the actress cheerfully shared clear, detailed memories of a production long ago, her deep love for her craft, at its best and its worst, seemed to illuminate her from within. Grounded and sincere, she’s the very epitome of humility, yet her every measured movement and syllable seems to announce, “This, kids, is a pro.”
Only unimportant people try to seem important. Great artists don’t have to. So, it’s fitting that, when her interviewers thanked her for coming, Emmanuelle Riva smiled and simply replied, “I live quite close.”
Please note that all quotations from Riva in this article are my own translation of her words. For an article about the screening in the original French, I recommend this one on Paris Cinéma’s own site. You should also watch this interview (with subtitles) that Riva gave at Cannes in 1959. It’s great.
You can also learn more about the 50 Grands Rôles de Femmes series at the Reflet Medicis, which will be continuing until December 2014.
Thank you to Paris Cinéma for allowing me to include their photos of the event, taken by Clara Baillot and Camille Griner, on this blog.