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  • Skin Deep:Bodies without Limits in Hiroshima mon amour1
  • Christian Martin

Depuis la Renaissance, la pensée occidentale est obnubilée par un thème épistémologique; connaître, c'est briser l'écorce pour atteindre le noyau. Ce thème arrive à épuisement, après avoir produit quelques réussites et quelques dangers: la physique du noyau n'a-t-elle pas conduit savants et militaires jusqu'à l'explosion atomique?

—Didier Anzieu, Le Moi-peau

The first images in Hiroshima mon amour (1959) are among the most haunting of this film written by Marguerite Duras and directed by Alain Resnais. Two bodies seem to be embracing, but in a derealized fashion: we see no faces or other identifying features, only the slow movements of this embrace. We cannot distinguish the limits between individuals, the point at which one body ends and another begins. Or rather, to be more precise, we cannot pinpoint where one skin ends and another skin begins, since this initial sequence is filmed as a close-up on human skin accompanied only by the musical score by Giovanni Fusco. As though to emphasize that the key to this scene is skin deep, the camera draws our attention to the textured surface of the embracing bodies covered by ash, which soon begins to shimmer. Finally, the grainy quality of the image here reminds us that it is film: in French, "pellicule"—from the Latin pellis, or "skin."

Following the cues of this opening sequence, this paper attempts to bring into focus the fragile covering of human bodies in Hiroshima mon amour. Drawing on Didier Anzieu's work on the "skin ego" (le moi-peau),2 my intention is not to search "beneath the surface" for a deeper truth bearing on war, passion, trauma, or memory—the film's most haunting themes that have drawn the attention of critics.3 Instead, taking a deliberately superficial approach, I argue that the skin itself is the screen on which much of the [End Page 267] drama is projected, and as such, deserving of careful attention. Our hermeneutic programming to look "beneath the surface" makes it easy to overlook this most superficial part of our being. And yet, much rests on this delicate membrane: sense of touch, registering pleasure and pain, an experience of the world, and finally the possibility of an individually delineated body on which to project a notion of the self. Duras and Resnais are both acutely aware of the burden placed on this most vulnerable of membranes, able to withstand neither atomic holocaust nor catastrophic passion. Hiroshima mon amour thus begins with a tender homage to human skin, caught in a moment of vulnerability, before probing both nightmarish images of burnt and lacerated flesh as well as fantasies of bodies without limits, bodies no longer kept apart by their individual envelopes.

Skin Deep

In her scenario, Marguerite Duras wrote that the opening sequence should begin with the famous mushroom cloud expanding slowly across the screen while little by little two shoulders appear in the frame. She is very precise in insisting that these two shoulders should appear "cut off from the body at the height of the head and hips,"4 noting that this embrace should be "almost shocking" ("choquante"), and finally suggesting that the skin should be covered in "ashes, rain, dew, or perspiration."5 Because Resnais cut out the mushroom cloud, the first images in Hiroshima mon amour consist solely of a vague dorsal expanse of contours and texture with gentle movement, which Resnais films as a series of dissolves. The technique of the dissolve is perfectly suited to the material filmed, since one surface (film, skin) morphs into another, suggesting at the outset the depth of sheer surfaces.6

What makes these initial images "shocking" (Duras) is that we first see bodies covered in what seems to be ash, a tender but grim embrace suggesting wounded flesh perhaps on the very threshold of death. However, this image then dissolves into what is clearly a lovers' embrace, their bodies now covered not in glimmering ash but in perspiration. These initial images evoke the title, Hiroshima (bodies seemingly covered in atomic ash) mon amour (bodies in...


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