Dlouhý’s ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ (occasional notes on posters)

Bedřich Dlouhý was an occasional poster artist and book designer. Better known as a surrealist painter and a member of the youthful Šmidrové group in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, he designed posters for art house films directed by Alain Resnais, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini as well as less cerebral fare from Hollywood studios. Dlouhý adopted ‘strangeness’ (divnost) in his paintings to issue an irrational critique to the orderly view of the world promoted in the Socialist Republic. In his art, absurd images and grotesque characters signalled a minor act of rebellion.

Dlouhý’s 1963 poster for Resnais’s 1959 film ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ exploits the then forgotten surrealist technique of frottage. The grainy surface of a piece of knotted wood becomes a drawing as Dlouhý adds strange tendrils and organic burrs. Such doodles represent nothing except, perhaps, the unconscious working of the mind. In this device, Dlouhý captures the melancholic effects of traumatic memory. Over 36 hours, the two central characters – a Japanese architect and his French actress lover – struggle to contain their memories of the recent past; in his case the death of his family in Hiroshima and, in her case, the punishment which she endured for having loved a German soldier in occupied France.

On first inspection, the gnarled wooden plank looks like a aerial view of a landscape, perhaps alluding to the  devastated view of the city after the atomic bomb had turned Hiroshima into smouldering ruins. When one recognises the anguished hands and forearms which seem to be trying to grip this surface, a new sense of scale reorganises the image. The gesture of the hands suggest a barrier, as if they are clawing at a wall. In the film, the actress recalls her imprisonment in a deep basement by her compatriots after the Liberation: ‘Hands become useless in a cellar. They claw and scape away at the rocks until they bleed. It is all you can think of to help yourself and to remember.’ In this prison of memory, the challenge is to escape the hold of the past over the present.

From the very first scene, hands play a key role in the film not least to point to the physical, corporeal nature of trauma and its recall. The opening shot switches from the dusty arms and hands of couple, perhaps brushing off the  radioactive soot from the lethal firestorm to the embrace of lovers, locked in passion.

When ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ was promoted in Western Europe, the publicity tended to emphasise the relationship of the two lovers. The full set of romantic clichés were set in motion – smouldering gazes, romantic clinches. Dlouhý captured something much darker and perhaps much closer to Resnais’ intention. Godard called it ‘he first film without any cinematic references’. In much the same way, Dlouhýs’ poster was a poster without cinematic clichés.

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