French New Wave Women: Hiroshima mon amour and Lola

An overlooked yet striking characteristic of the French New Wave is that all of its filmmakers – apart from Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy’s wife – were men. In her book Masculine Singular: French New Wave Cinema (2008), Geneviève Sellier, defines the “masculine singular” in the French New Wave films, as a ” ‘cinephilic gaze [that] is necessarily male, heterosexual, and directed toward icons, fetishes, and female sexual objects.’”[1] She claims that the female subject is constructed “from the outside … as an instance of a social condition or type.” In other words, she is reduced to a stereotype, an oversimplified image deprived of “consciousness,”[2] i.e. subjectivity, point of view and voice. I will discuss Sellier’s argument as regards Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) whose screenplay was written by novelist Marguerite Duras, and Lola (Jacques Demy 1960). The story of Hiroshima is typical of Duras for its themes: fragmentation, repetition, memory, otherness and impossible love. Set in 1947, A Japanese architect (Eiji Okada), and a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) shooting a film in Hiroshima, have a romantic encounter. In the context of the still lively memory and trauma of the bombing, the woman will reveal to the Japanese man her tragic past as a “femme tondue” (shorn woman) in Nevers.

Lola (1960), by Jacques Demy, diegetically lasting two days, tells the story of cabaret dancer and singer Lola (Anouk Aimée), waiting for her first love Michel, who disappeared seven years ago, abandoning her and their son, Yvon. During this lapse of time, we watch Lola, flitting from her fling with Frankie, an American sailor, Roland, a childhood friend, Yvon and her job as a performer. We can note already that the female characters in those two very different French New Wave films are an actress and a singer/cabaret dancer, occupations which are often associated with promiscuous women, nay prostitutes.[3]

Thus, are women deprived of subjectivity by the auteurs of the French New Wave? Is Emmanuelle Riva an allegory (a picture/text which wan be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one)? Is she an empty shell for a wider universal consciousness or does she exist as herself? Is Lola only depicted as a sex-object deprived of subjectivity?

I will examine the character of Emmanuelle Riva, how her subjectivity is both highlighted and erased at the benefit of collective memory. Then I will study the female subject(s) in Lola, as we will see that there are “variations,” of Lola. Lastly, I will try to demonstrate that analysing these films through a male/female binary opposition might be too simplistic.

 

First, one must study Hiroshima by including Duras’s voice and subjectivity, since she wrote the screenplay. Resnais failed to make a documentary about Hiroshima and asked for Duras’s help to draft a fiction. Duras’s words and political discourse speaks through Emmanuelle Riva’s voice over the images of demonstrations in Hiroshima: “The anger of entire cities, whether they like it or not, is against the principle of inequality set forth by one people against another people.” This is a direct allusion to the Gaullist policy in the Algerian war occurring at the time of the film, against which Duras was fiercely opposed.[4] Indeed, as Lynn Higgins explains, the film is more metahistorical than specific to the event of Hiroshima, and this sentence could be applied to any events.[5]

For Duras, the best approach to evoke Hiroshima was to incorporate it in a fictional story which had nothing to do with Hiroshima, because it is “ ‘impossible to speak about Hiroshima.’”[6] Resnais and Duras had imagined the soldier as an anti-Nazi but they deliberately decided to leave the ambiguity in order to allow the public “ ‘liberty of judgement.’”[7] They wanted to make a love story with the atomic shadow over it. Elle’s story and introspection would a pretext to express a collective Historical consciousness, implying both the erasure and implication of the female’s subjectivity. Elle’s meeting with the recollection of Hiroshima makes her think of her own trauma. As the spectators watching the film, “protagonists would not participate directly in the event itself but instead would play the marginal role of [witnesses/spectators.][8] Elle and Lui are helpless spectators, like us viewers, only the Japanese man is more conscious of it than her as he laconically corrects her “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.”

In the first sequence of the film, Elle saw “Hiroshima” at the museum, in the documentaries, as we are watching it. We have not seen Hiroshima bombing or aftermath, we see recollections of it, images, reconstructions through Elle’s voice. This sequence is subjective, since Elle’s voice matches what we see (the museum and documentaries) yet impersonal. Only Elle’s voice implies her subjectivity “I saw everything”, yet we do not see her in those shots. The tracking shots swiping on the objects altered by the bombing (1) or the unusual feet-level angle-shot (2) express a dehumanising yet universal vision of the recollections of Hiroshima. Likewise, Elle describes her city Nevers in a generic and geographical way. Therefore, “like Hiroshima, Nevers also emerges almost as a tale without a teller. As a typical story that anyone could tell, it too reveals itself to be a transpersonal or collective memory.”[9]

The film is made of fragmentation and oxymoron, as the title (“Hiroshima, mon amour.”) After the intercutting of the gruesome documentary images of Hiroshima and the couple’s embrace, there is a shot of Elle’s hand caressing Lui’s back. She says intra-diegetically, then, “It’s crazy that you have such a beautiful skin.” The film jumps from the collective memory of Hiroshima, and the injustice of collateral damages in general to the intimacy of a couple and their sweet words. Does Elle’s very character have her own voice, which is not that of Duras or of collective consciousness? First, Elle is not displayed as a sex object (there is no close-up on parts of her body apart from her face or explicit nudity.) She is portrayed as a woman who seems to assume her sexuality and desires. However her freedom is by tinted bitterness, as she says sarcastically that she has “doubtful morals/moralité douteuse.” She perhaps integrated the labels she was attributed to as a “tondue,” a “collabo.” According to Higgins, Elle is not the subject of her story, but the object  – “[Elle] is not the subject of her story: she is its spectator, its object, its place,”[10] – she would be enduring rather than taking action. Although Elle’s story is mostly made by History’s tragic contingencies (she is French and in love of a German during the war, he is killed because German, she is shorn because she slept with a German) I would still argue that she is the subject of her life because she made the choice to break the rules. Suffering from its consequences actually makes her the subject of them. Elle is made by her decisions in a certain historical context; as Lui puts it “I seem to understand that it was there [Nevers] that you began to be who you are today.” According to Nancy Wood, her transgressive liaison with the enemy was a way to express her rebellion against rules and conventions, as well as her awakening sexuality.[11]

She is an actress, so is she never really herself. She is playing as a nurse in the film about Hiroshima within the film. Elle is an actress: her job depends on remembering other people’s text. However she is not shown performing during the film, since it is a cathartic moment for her.

 

Lola is made of archetypes and variations because both the film and the characters are a collage of multiple references. Indeed, the film is dedicated to Max Ophüls, who made Lola Montes (1955). Likewise, the top hat Lola is wearing, is a reference to Marlene Dietrich, who played Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930.) The sailors dancing or Frankie gliding on handrails of the stairs are a reference to Gene Kelly’s musicals, e.g. On the Town (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1949.) Elina Labourdette (Mme Desnoyers) played a dancer in Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1954).

The main question is who is Lola, or rather who is this woman, since she does not have a fixed identity. The film starts with the male characters: Michel, Frankie and Roland. Therefore, the question is how they are linked to Lola. Rodney Hill defines Lola as “a small-time burlesque queen and apparent prostitute.”[12] Nonetheless, nothing in the film suggests that Lola is a prostitute; she even says to Roland “I’m not a whore.” I would argue that Lola is being herself when she is performing. Agnès Varda, who wrote the lyrics of Lola, insisted that Michel Legrand composed the music of the song.[13] Lola’s song, although a stage persona, is her real-life portrait. The lyrics refer to a rather frivolous woman who enjoys flirting yet she has boundaries “We sing, we dance/ We play with romance/We whirl and we spin/Then I say with a grin/ That I mean no, it’s time to go/ That’s enough, don’t get rough/It’s me… Lola.” The song was post-synchronized and the words do not correspond to Lola’s mouthing Lola song, which illustrates the “the split between Lola’s voice and her body, the gap that is crossed between the performed identity and the performer who assumes it.”[14] Lola is therefore Lola, her stage identity, and not Cécile, which is her real name.

We have very few subjective shots of Lola. We have only POV shots of Lola when she evokes Michel, e.g. when she tells Frankie he reminds her of Michel (3, 4). Likewise, when she is eating with Roland, we have a close-up of Roland (5, 6) listening to her describing her first love, who looks exactly like Frankie. “A fair, tall guy, big and blond, well-built, dresses like an American sailor,” who she met on her fourteenth birthday. In the end, we have the last POV shot of Lola, looking at Roland walking away (7, 8). It could express regrets, since the older “version” of Lola has an inclination for Roland. Life is of happy coincidences or made of missed opportunities, or as Varda puts it “ ‘a collection of pains and triumphs of love, which represents itself as a kind of ballet.’”[15]

Lola’s subjectivity is expressed by clothes and appearance. She is a cabaret dancer when she is wearing a corset, a mother when she dons her trench. When Lola wears Frankie’s uniform, coupled with the overexposure creating a glowing and angelical effect, she becomes an unreal fantasy (9). Lola is defined by men, or rather seen by men, as Frankie describes her: “Tu es le charme, tu es la grâce, tu es la beauté.” She always says to men (Roland and Frankie) that she looks awful, waiting for them to reassure her on her beauty; therefore she enjoys being seen through their eyes. This would be a typical example of female to-be-looked-at-ness to use the wording of Laura Mulvey. “Il faut toujours plaire, c’est un principe,” she says to Roland while he is holding her mirror. She embodies different images: a mother, a lover, an unattainable woman, a wife but we never get to see those roles in depth. Yvon and Lola’s relationship is not shown, as they are most of the time filmed from a distance, “from the outside.”(10). Frankie is being a paternal figure, giving toys to Yvon. However, one might suspect it is to secure the favours of Lola.

Moreover, the character of Lola is tripled in three different versions: as Demy explains: “I chose three different moments in the life of three characters: Lola, the cabaret singer and dancer, and a young girl and her mother, who represent her when she’s 14 and 38.”[16] It is interesting therefore to study Lola’s different “variations.” Cécile is a younger Lola (whose real name is Cécile as well), representing sexual awakening and desire for independence. Cécile wants to be a dancer like Lola. Mme Desnoyers used to be a dancer as well. She has a crush on Frankie, to whom she reminds of his 14-year-old sister and the nostalgia of his passing youth. Mme Desnoyers is the older Lola: a mother and widower, also yearning for love in more restrained way because of society. Her decorous comment on the controversial novel Justine (Marquis de Sade, 1791) – “What about morality?” – illustrates the traditional contradiction the female desires are subjected to.

Demy films his characters from the outside, watching the characters evolving like a stage-ballet, as the characters were real-life dolls. It is not surprising since Demy’s next films will be musicals. The poetic scene of Mme Desnoyers and Cécile in their apartment is an example of ballet-like aesthetic. Mme Desnoyers, stays in the foreground while Cécile jumps towards the balcony from which the overexposed light exudes from in the background (11). She reappears in the left window while the camera pans, following her mother’s movement who opens to her (12). Mme Desnoyers is static while Lola spins around.  She appears again almost magically through another window in the background (13). In another static and composed, Mme Desnoyers is in the foreground, while Cécile appears again from a window (14). One can notice that the mother is always frame in geometrical and dark spaces, while young Cécile is drawn by the incandescent light. The overexposure and the backlight are devices used in Agnès Varda’s Cleo de 5 à 7 (1962). Mme Desnoyers closes the door, happy at the prospect of seeing Roland again. There is a reflection of Cécile in the mirror, making them both appear in the same shot (15). Her sudden (and impossible) inclination for Roland is a recall of her youth. Time is not linear but cyclical, there is no past or future. What is present is already belong to the past or the future. Thus, I would argue that although the camera is outside, it expresses the female subjectivity in the case of Mme Desnoyers. Likewise, I would argue that the slow-motion sequence where Frankie and Cécile are at the fair expresses Cécile’s subjectivity (16, 17) as she is looking lovingly at him. She is having a magical moment; and Frankie is probably not feeling the same about her that she feels about him. However, the slow-motion effect coupled with the music (Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier) transcribes the enchanted dream Cécile feels she is living. As Mark Shivas astutely points out: “Just as the three women sustain their loves by illusion, this slow-motion sequence makes imagination more solid than ‘reality.’”[17] It is consequently Frankie who is the object of Cécile’s fantasy.

 

Looking at it with a binary gender-opposition – women as object, men (both the directors and the intra-diegetic characters as subject – is too reductive. Elle does not want to forget her love, but it is inevitable. As Nancy Wood explains, the forgetting of a traumatic event is less due to repression than to “a therapeutic process, […] a cathartic ‘letting go’ of the traumatic memory itself.”[18] Obviously, one might see Elle as a case-study subject of analysis of remembering and forgetting a trauma, since it is the Japanese man who pushes her to tell her story in Nevers. He will take the role of the dead German soldier as an hypnosis: “When you are in the cellar, am I dead?” Therefore one can argue that placing the man as the rational and in-control psychoanalyst is patriarchal. The slapping scene, where Elle is raving, is the cliché of the hysterical woman, pulled together by the rational and cold-blooded man. The patronizing statement of Jacques Doniol-Valcroze leans towards this interpretation: “Emmanuelle Riva is a modern adult woman because she is not an adult woman. Quite the contrary, she is very childish, motivated solely by her impulses and not by her ideas.”[19] Jacques Rivette adds: “She doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t analyse herself. She tries desperately to redefine herself in relation to Hiroshima, in relation to this Japanese man.”[20] I would argue that Elle is very much self-reflexive and conscious of her state. She says: “Nevers is the one city in the world […] that I dream about the most. At the same time, it’s the one thing in the world that I think about the least.” She is conscious that the memory of Nevers is haunting her. Yet she deliberately refuses to remember it, i.e. to translate it from unconscious language to conscious language which would make her forget it.

However, according to Daniel Just, the fact that the man is the listener and trigger for Elle’s revelation is due to his reluctance to tell his own trauma. E.g. at the beginning, Elle explains that she was “mad with hate.” She asks him “You must understand that too, I guess.” Instead of talking about his subjectivity, he keeps questioning her. Elle’s answers would prove that, unlike him, she is willing to face the past, while his “scepticism about the woman’s understanding is a defence mechanism against his own trauma and an excuse for his refusal to return to the past.”[21] Duras wrote the screenplay, she is a Western woman; one can suppose she did not want to speak in place of an Asian man about Hiroshima. Moreover, the Japanese man is shown as object of desire for Elle[22] although Resnais and Duras wanted a Europeanised Japanese man so as not to fall into the pitfall of exoticisation.[23]

Men in Lola are clichés and objectified as well. Michel is actually a blink to Jean-Pierre Melville who was infatuated with the US, and who like Michel, used to wear a cow-boy hat and smock the cigar. He encounters Frankie, a real American, who mocks him “Where did you learn to drive, cowboy!” It is a mise-en-abyme of a real American mocking an American cliché, personified by a Frenchman. Frankie is the stereotype of the post-war handsome American serviceman having love affairs with French cabaret dancers, offering whiskey, cigarettes, chewing gums, and comics (these are allusions to the American culture unfolding in post-war France.) As I explained earlier, Frankie is the object of Cécile’s fantasy. Similarly to Lola, Michel has his “variations:” Frankie and Yvon are repetitions of himself. Roland is the archetype of the jaded dreamer, bored by the province, who complains but takes no actions, at least until the end. As in Hiroshima, locations and personas are linked. Michel goes back to Nantes, his birthplace. Alignment of lover, place of birth, and parent: Lola/Nantes/mother of Yvon; “A son would come first to see his mother.” The film revolves around Michel but he is only a ghostly presence looming over the story, like the bombing of Hiroshima. It is both present and absent.

 

To conclude, Resnais-Duras do not construct Elle “from the outside” in the sense that her subjectivity is expressed through the flashbacks and the dialogue. She says “I” and talk about herself. She is in a way constructed from the outside when she uses “She” to talk about herself, as if it was not her talking but the voice of collective memory. I would argue that the fact that the man acts as a pointer of her analysis is not patriarchal but is faithful to the decision of Resnais-Duras that it is impossible to speak about Hiroshima. I would argue that she is not constructed as an instance of social condition or type, at least, not by Resnais-Duras: “femme tondue,” “collabo,” woman with “doubtful morals” are labels attributed by others that she integrated herself. Demy constructs his female subjects from the outside, as well as all the characters, a style which precedes Demy’s musicals. Lola is literally created “from the outside,” as she is a collage of multiple references. Lola is a sex object, a cliché, as well as the male protagonists. The female characters are defined by or the absence of love stories.

 

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Bibliography

 

‘Hiroshima, notre amour’, in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinema, the 1950s (Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1985), pp. 59-70.

Danks, Adrian. “Living cinema: The ‘Demy Films’ of Agnès Varda.” Studies in Documentary Film 4 no. 2, (2010): 159-172.

Higgins, Lynn. “Myths of Textual Autonomy: From Psychoanalysis to Historiography in Hiroshima mon amour.” In New Novel, New Wave, New Politics, 19-54. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Hill, Rodney. “Demy Monde: the New-Wave Films of Jacques Demy.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, no. 25 (2008): 382-394.

Just, Daniel. “The Poetics of Elusive History: Marguerite Duras, War Traumas, and the Dilemmas of Literary Representation.” The Modern Language Review 107, no. 4 (October 2012): 1064-1081.

Lazen, Matthew. “‘En perme à Nantes’: Jacques Demy and new wave place,” Studies in French Cinema 4 no. 3 (2004): 87-196.

Legrand, Michel. Rien n’est grave dans les aigus. Paris: Cherche-Midi, 2013.

Pidduck, Julianne. “Book reviews: Masculine Singular: French New Wave Cinema.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 18 no.1 (2009): 104-108. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/2181183?accountid=11862

Sellier, Geneviève. “French New Wave Cinema and the Legacy of Male Libertinage.” Cinema Journal 49, no. 4 (Summer 2010): 152-158.

Shivas, Mark. “Reviewed Work: Lola by Jacques Demy.”Film Quarterly 18, no. 1 (1964): 49-50.

Wood, Nancy. “Memory by analogy: Hiroshima, mon amour.” In The Liberation of France, Image and Event, edited by H.R. Kedward & Wood 309-321. Berg, 1995.

 

Filmography

 

Bresson, Robert. Les Dames du bois de Boulogne, 1945.

Demy, Jacques. Lola, 1961.

Donen, Stanley and Gene Kelly. On the Town, 1949.

Ophüls, Max. Lola Montes, 1955.

Resnais, Alain. Hirsoshima mon amour, 1959.

Varda, Agnès. Cléo de 5 à 7, 1961.

Von Sternberg, Josef. The Blue Angel, 1930.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Geneviève Sellier, quoted in Julianne Pidduck, “Book reviews: Masculine Singular: French New Wave Cinema,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 18 no.1 (2009): 105.

[2] Sellier, “Gender, Modernism and Mass Culture in the French New Wave,”

[3] Geneviève Sellier, “French New Wave Cinema and the Legacy of Male Libertinage,” Cinema Journal 49, no. 4 (2010): 153.

[4] Daniel Just, “The Poetics of Elusive History: Marguerite Duras, War Traumas, and the Dilemmas of Literary Representation,” The Modern Language Review 107, no. 4 (October 2012): 1071.

[5] Lynn Higgins, “Myths of Textual Autonomy: From Psychoanalysis to Historiography in Hiroshima mon amour,” in New Novel, New Wave, New Politics, (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 23.

[6] Duras, quoted in Higgins, 32.

[7] Resnais, quoted in Nancy Wood, “Memory by analogy: Hiroshima, mon amour.” In The Liberation of France, Image and Event, eds. H.R. Kedward & Wood (Berg, 1995), 316.

[8] Higgins, 33.

[9] Higgins, 42.

[10] Higgins, 45.

[11] Wood, 316.

[12] Hill, 385.

[13] Michel Legrand, Rien n’est grave dans les aigus, (Paris: Cherche-Midi, 2013) 266-69.

[14] Matthew Lazen, “‘En perme à Nantes’: Jacques Demy and New Wave Place,” Studies in French Cinema 4 no. 3 (2004): 193.

[15] Agnès Varda, quoted in Hill, 387.

[16] Jacques Demy, quoted in Rodney Hill, “Demy Monde: the New-Wave Films of Jacques Demy,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, no. 25 (2008): 386.

[17] Mark Shivas, “Reviewed Work: Lola by Jacques Demy, ”Film Quarterly 18, no. 1 (1964): 50.

[18] Wood, 314.

[19] Jim Hiller, ed., “Hiroshima, notre amour,” in Cahiers du cinema, the 1950s (Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1985), 63.

[20] Hiller, 63.

[21] Just, 1068.

[22] Pidduck, 108.

[23]

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