Marguerite Duras on writing the screenplay for Hiroshima mon amour by Alain Resnais ‹ Literary Hub

The following was originally published in the France-Observer on July 31, 1958, and was translated into English by Nicholas Elliott for Film Forum’s RESNAIS 100a retrospective of 22 films in commemoration of the director’s centenary (until August 25).

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The script for Alain Resnais’ next film, which is called Hiroshima my love, is finished. Three days ago, Alain Resnais left for Tokyo with our work in his 70 pounds of luggage. That’s how I know my job is done here. It is now the turn of Resnais, in Hiroshima.

In two months, he will return with a film. We will see.

It is said that quite a few people refused to work on this script. Probably because it wasn’t particularly well paid and because it seemed like everything had been said about Hiroshima.

Personally, I accepted immediately, based solely on the name of Resnais. Due to Night and Fog and also because of the kind of good things I had heard about Resnais. First Hiroshima scared me. And then, on the contrary, it captivated me. Raising a “subject” from its ashes is a third degree work that deals both with oneself – who has forgotten – and with others – who have forgotten. Thousands of pages have been written on Hiroshima in 14 years. What could we do?

Thanks to Resnais, I saw that the resurgence of Hiroshima was possible. That we could at least try to do something with this place. He took great pains to explain to me that nothing in Hiroshima was a “given”. That a particular halo should endow each gesture, each word there with an additional meaning to their literal meaning. That the main purpose of the film was to put an end to the description of horror by horror, because that had been done, accomplished to the end, by the Japanese themselves, but that had to be revived this horror from its ashes while keeping its eternal and relentless meaning.

Raising a “subject” from its ashes is a third degree work that deals both with oneself – who has forgotten – and with others – who have forgotten.

So we tried to bring Hiroshima back as a love story. We hope that it will be special and “exciting” and that people will believe in it a little more than if it had happened anywhere else in the world, insofar as it takes place in such a place consecrated by death. We have tried to ensure that between two peoples as far apart as possible geographically, philosophically, historically, economically, racially, etc., Hiroshima is the common ground where the universal facts of eroticism, love and unhappiness appear in a less false light than elsewhere.

Maybe we failed. But I think it was worth trying.

The actress playing the lead role is Emmanuelle Riva. It is the first time that she is in the cinema. I think it’s hard to imagine her if you’ve never met her before. If we had to talk about Emmanuelle Riva literally, it seems to me that this is what we could say:

“It could also, in a way, be called ‘The Look.’ Everything about her, from her words to her movements, “passes through her gaze”.

“This gaze forgets itself. This woman is looking for herself. His gaze does not consecrate his behavior, he always goes beyond. It is probable that in love all women have beautiful eyes. But this one, love throws her into a disorder of the soul—a mortal disorder—(deliberately Stendhalian word) a little more than other women. Because she is more “in love with love itself” than other women. Through the man she loves, she also loves love. And out of love, she watches, like a party, the chance that love represents to get lost in it, to the point of never again understanding a possible compromise between love and life.

Maybe we failed. But I think it was worth trying.

And that said, we realize that this portrait is well below Emmanuelle Riva: you just have to see her live for an hour to be sure.

Things had taken a long time to fall into place. Which means we had about nine weeks to do the job that Resnais wanted. He was to leave for Japan at the end of July at the latest. And he left at the end of July. With work.

We realized it was possible. And even that sometimes a tight deadline is beneficial in that it forces you to work so much that you are immersed deeper in the subject than you would be if you only thought about it four hours a day. One can even wonder if certain subjects who wait two years to be shot rot on the spot because of the too long time – superstitiously deemed necessary for their cinematographic advent. And if this tone “in the past” of certain great international films is not due to the financially ruinous wedging of the adapters, screenwriters and directors who feel obliged to get tired, even to despair of their subject, before approaching it with the ‘camera.

These are the thoughts that come to mind when you are forced to work very quickly. This does not mean that you have to work quickly, but, perhaps, that others work too long. And that perhaps certain films would have a lot to gain from not being so “laborious”.

I saw Resnais relatively happy with our work, which was necessarily insufficient. Whereas at that time, I had only ever seen directors desperate to go and shoot. Go there like in a labor camp.

However, again, it was a bit of a lost cause, for lack of time. There is probably too big a difference between two years and nine weeks. Yet until the very end, Resnais said to me:

– Write literature. Do not worry about me. Forget the camera.

Never, in nine weeks of working together, has Resnais told me what one hears a thousand times from “cinephiles”.

Still, I haven’t had time to write literature in nine weeks. Resnais knew this perfectly well. As if I knew I didn’t have time to write a screenplay. That I didn’t know how to do. However, he continued to direct me towards literature. Until the last day, he pointed it out to me. If anything had to be saved face in this short time, Resnais opted to save literary face at the enterprise. Fitting it into a cinematic style didn’t interest him at all. So he’d rather people make bad literature, but his own, than bad film, which wouldn’t necessarily be his.

-To chase. We are lucky because the film is not too expensive. So we can say more or less what we want. Do exactly what you love.

Or else:

– If we project in a single cinema, we will have won. Do exactly as you wish. That’s what I’m asking you. Forget me.

Never, in nine weeks of working together, has Resnais told me what we hear a thousand times – for free – from “cinephiles”:

— You see, in the cinema, the perspective is different. You see, in the movie, they “won’t buy that.” You see, in cinema, you have to rely on credibility, the logic is different, etc.

Unimaginable that Resnais could speak like that.

Hiroshima my love is his first feature film. And it’s probably the first time he’s going to direct actors. And, imperturbable, he uses the same language: “If we projected in a single cinema…”

It is said that Resnais is a cinema torturer, a cinema sadomasochist, a cinema madman. I believe him. Which is to say that Resnais fiercely wants to make the kind of films he loves. He’s seen everyone’s movies. He never condemns anyone. However, by knowing him, by working with him, we realize that parasitism reigns a little too powerfully in the cinema.

Wanting to do better than Huston is parasitic. Wanting to win the gold prize at the Venice Film Festival is also parasitic. Whether they like it or not, all French directors make the kind of films they don’t like to protect their tomorrows. A disease specific to the cinema? Most likely. How to make a film tomorrow if that of today is not commercial? But why, once today’s film is commercial, do so few directors try to make a non-commercial film tomorrow?

I know how Resnais works. He tortures people by leaving them too free to do what they want. He leaves them with their fear of “not writing for the cinema”. After he left, we remember that according to the work we did, 90% of the directors were working for months before they started filming, and would give you a serious lecture. Had fear. But ultimately, isn’t it necessary from time to time? Especially in the movies?

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Nicholas Elliott is a Queens-based writer and translator. He is the former New York correspondent for Cinema Notebooks and is currently translating Serge Daney’s book The ramp for Semioext(e).