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The Essentials: Michelangelo Antonioni

The Essentials: Michelangelo Antonioni

While he had made five previous movies, 1957’s “Il Grido” being the most essential of the bunch, Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s career didn’t really begin in earnest until a May 1960 evening at the Cannes Film Festival where his latest film, “L’Avventura,” was met with boos, exaggerated yawns, loud jeers, and even derisive laughter. Antonioni had made a mysterious, sparse and opaque film that would define the rest of his career—an unusual movie, like many others that would follow, where “nothing happens,” at least in the estimation of his harshest critics. It was, as he described it, a type of film noir in reverse—a disaffected socialite goes on a boat trip with haute bourgeois friends only to suddenly vanish on a small and remote island; she is never found. In fact she’s forgotten and evaporates from the movie’s and the characters’ consciousness. As her memory fades into the background, her boyfriend and best friend go from concerned and investigative to eventually enamored of each other and tangled in their own troubled and tortured love affair. Yet the film is not a condemnation of their putatively shallow behavior—instead it’s an exploration of the inexplicable nature of love, moral ambivalence, and fragility of modern behavior.

Filmmaker, novelist, and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet (he wrote Alain Resnais‘ masterwork, “Last Year at Marienbad“) once said, describing Antonioni’s work with a comparable auteur, “In a Hitchcock film, the meaning of what you see on the screen is constantly delayed, but at the end of the film you understand everything. With Antonioni’s [films], it’s the exact opposite.” Spartan widescreen images were always clear, but the meaning was constantly evolving even as the film ended. And so it was that the day after the Cannes premiere, forty-odd artists from the festival, including Roberto Rossellini had written to Antonioni praising his daring. The film would go on to win a Special Jury Prize “for its remarkable contribution towards the search for a new cinematic language.”

Perhaps emboldened by this affirmation, Antonioni would continue with what he described as works of searching; intricate and enigmatic mood pieces centering on disaffected, spiritually adrift characters suffering the emotional sickness of ennui, alienation, apathy and existential crises. A product of European post-war cinema, Antonioni was described as a modernist in that he dared to push cinematic language forward, but he also attempted to express anachronistic morals and emotions (he sympathizes with the lovers in “L’Avventura” even if by the codes of modern society, they are backstabbers). And while class was always a theme to a certain extent, from the socialites in “Les Amiches,” to the vagabond father in “Il Grido,” to the affluent couples in his “alienation trilogy,” his chief concern was more with the fundamental discontent that seems to be a byproduct of wealth, not wealth itself.

Antonioni’s preoccupation with this cool, sometimes dispassionate “exquisite alienation” would often take a similar form; an austere but beautiful visual majesty, an architectural enormity that often oppressed the psychology of his characters within their environment (environment being everything to the filmmaker) and temps mort [dead time], those moments after the scene’s action really ends, when the camera’s gaze lingers, soaking up the inexpressible. “Nothing happens, man; it’s just a lot of people going nowhere,” Mark Frechette, one of Antonioni’s actors, once said of his films. But each film had a voyage, albeit one where characters were inevitably trapped in an intricate psychosis of indifference, ambivalence and weighted silences.

The filmmaker would be awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1995, two years after the same honor was bestowed on his counterpart Federico Fellini. The latter will always be the greater household name in cinema, but with Antonioni’s contributions to the form and the dismantling of conventional grammar perhaps not getting their due appreciation from any but the most rarefied of cinephile circles over the years, we’d argue a wider reassessment can’t be far behind. Maybe with last week’s belated Criterion Collection release of “La Notte,” perhaps the most sensually striking of all his modern tetralogy, the time is now. With this wrong finally righted (we’re sure it was a rights thing but “La Notte” belonged in the collection a decade ago), we decided to take a look at the essentials of a sometimes overlooked titan of cinema: Michelangelo Antonioni.

L’Avventura” (“The Adventure” 1960)
Anticipating Hitchcock’s daring protagonist switch before “Psycho,” as aforementioned, Antonioni’s sixth film was a breakthrough game-changer for the filmmaker and he would never look back. Eschewing conventional plot and narrative forms, the Italian modernist tapped into the European post-war zeitgeist by exploring notions of uncertainty, unease and ennui. A “noir in reverse,” “L’Avventura” is almost two different films in one: an austere, haunting and strangely disquieting first half where a socialite goes missing on a remote island while on a boat trip with her well-to-do friends, its chilly environment, as usual, is the perfect setting for the disaffected psychology of the characters (a fundamental element of all subsequent Antonioni films). In its second half, “L’Avventura” all but abandons the missing girl—she drifts away like a foggy, forlorn memory—and then tracks her boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) as they eventually fall in love while initially searching in vain for their lost companion. The picture could be seen as an erosion of values—how friends abandon their compatriots for a shallow affair that’s likely not going to last, but Antonioni is actually operating on a more complex level and embracing their relationship, not condemning it (which is usually the case with the torrid affairs he depicts). For Antonioni, eroticism is an emotional tool to mask the characters shortcomings. Sandro, for instance, having sold out his artistic side for hollow work in the commercial world. In the end actions are never judged; this is not about consequences. As such, “L’Avventura,” is a bold but apropos title, forcing us to think of this type of affair as an adventure that may not lead anywhere or even mean very much, in its exploration of the complexities of desire, longing and connection. Because just like Antonioni’s similarly themed explorations that followed, it’s a film that almost never provides satisfying or easy answers to the mysteries of human behavior.

La Notte” (“The Night” 1961)
The middle film in the loose thematic trilogy that includes “L’Avventura” and “L’Eclisse,” “La Notte” (though many argue “Red Desert” fits in fine thematically minus its use of color), which also stars the striking Monica Vitti alongside Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni, finds Antonioni distilling his preoccupations with alienation, fidelity and the brittleness of social success into a concentrated, crystal-clear yet still willfully enigmatic film, one that can perhaps best exemplify the heady power of his style for a neophyte. Certainly, it gained plaudits, winning the Golden Bear in Berlin and reportedly numbering among Stanley Kubrick‘s ten favorite films. The absolute beauty of the shotmaking is one factor at play, but mainly the process by which he exerts a hold on our attention is mysterious (and subjective–there are those who find it just too slow): it’s a film in which a great deal occurs, but nothing really happens—at least nothing that seems to fundamentally change our central characters very much, let alone have them experience anything so crass as “an arc.” Over the course of a single day and night we follow Giovanni (Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Moreau) as they visit a dying friend, attend book signings and parties (Giovanni is a celebrated author), but occasionally wander off alone, or with potential lovers they meet along the way. By its conclusion, it forces a confrontation of sorts about the nature of their relationship, and though it seems clear that it is irretrievably fractured, we close out on them making love of sorts, in a sandtrap on a millionaire’s golf course as dawn breaks. All the way through, the conversations between the couple happen at a kind of heightened remove—as upset and overwrought as Lidia sometimes is, Giovanni fails to comfort her; and as much as Giovanni seems to enjoy the trappings of success and peer admiration, Lidia fails to legitimize that by treating it as important. It’s a chilly and chilling portrait of a bourgeois relationship in a state of peculiar entropy; even as they seek distraction with others there is a strange inevitability to the fact that they’ll end up together. Perhaps it’s a kind of punishment for living out this bourgeois dream—Antonioni definitely feels to be judging them harshly for their self-absorption and pampered discontentments. But watch it on a different day and you might come to a very different conclusion, which is one of the truly great things about this chimeric movie. Beautiful, mutable and ever just beyond one’s reach, “La Notte” is not a film that everyone will find time for, though we’d argue that here it’s not exactly patience the viewer needs, just a willingness to allow the film’s rich visuals to draw you in and its cool currents close over your head.

L’Eclisse” (“Eclipse” 1962)
When Italian author Alberto Moravia, also consumed with ideas of social alienation and existentialism, wrote “money is the alien element which indirectly intervenes in all relationships, even sexual,” he could have been talking about Antonioni’s “Eclipse.” A film that could be subtitled, “Heavy Petting,” it stars Monica Vitti as Vittoria and Alain Delon as Piero, two would-be lovers flirting with the idea of a romance, but struggling to understand true intimacy. But the metaphorical eclipse in the movie is the absence of anything real or genuine, including love. Haunted by an urban landscape of grandiose modern Italian architecture (juxtaposed with half-built buildings seemingly abandoned because of their outdated style), Delon plays a young stockbroker who gets rich while Italy’s underclass goes belly up. One of these poor fools is Vittoria’s mother, who gambled it all away on poor choices. Fresh from her own break-up with an older man, Vittoria meets Piero through this connection and they dance around the idea of being together and professing true love for one another, including several heavy make-out sessions that eventually feel apathetic and empty. In the absence of true connection, these emotionally exhausted characters attempt to manufacture an eternal love, but it never quite gels and is ephemeral as the unsettled winds that give their little city its ghostly and disenchanted atmosphere. “I feel like I’m in a foreign country,” Piero says at one point. “Funny,” Vittoria counters. “That’s how I feel around you,” and it’s probably as direct a piece of dialogue as anyone says in the film. Professing true love, the couple vow to meet on street corner later that evening, but neither shows up and the film ends with an opaque and ominous (and rather famous or infamous depending on your point of view) seven-minute montage of the empty cityscapes, mysterious, creepy and beautiful (dumb U.S. studios and theater owners sometimes lopped off this abstract section of the film as they thought it just confused viewers).

Red Desert” (1964)
The second to last film Antonioni would make with Vitti is the director’s first in color, and he makes striking use of the new tool, framing his urban landscape at a harsh, cold distance. In fact, the sound design, the enigmatic electronic score and cinematography give the film a science-fiction quality; it seems to exist on another planet. The director was hoping to create poetry out of urban decay, using color like a painter and presenting the smoky factories as an oppressive machine disturbing the environment, ready to take hold of the characters. Though “Red Desert” comes off as fairly negative, leaving one with the feeling that city life is being swallowed by industry and creating a bunch of dulled zombies going about their day-to-day, it was Antonioni’s hope that the audience would see the beauty in industrial technology. His hope was “to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing.” It is a story of how we adapt as human beings, successfully or not, and though the depiction of modern ennui through Monica Vitti’s neurotic, former mental institution-placed character and her listless demeanor as she goes from worried mother (her son fakes being paralyzed at one point) to adulteress (hopping in the sack with Richard Harris, a business associate to her husband) in an effort to figure out what is missing from her life, it’s never one to give any easy answers or leave you with any certain feeling. The film went on to win the Golden Lion at Venice in its year of release, a confirmation that Antonioni was near the top of the arthouse in his continuing mission to bring strange, unearthly films to adventurous cinemagoers.

Blowup” (1966)
Hot off the arthouse success of “Red Desert,” Antonioni was contracted by producer Carlo Ponti to make three English-language pictures for MGM. The first was this tale, adapted from the short story “The Devil’s Drool” by Julio Cortázar and also inspired by the life of London photographer David Bailey. The day-in-the-life of a swinging ’60s photographer, played with perfect brash braggadocio by David Hemmings as the straightfaced forerunner of Austin Powers (you kind of expect him to say “and I’m spent” after each photo session), takes a turn for the psychological once he realizes he may have witnessed and photographed a murder. He goes from photo shoot to photo shoot, scores with a few young ladies hoping to make it as models, then comes to realize as he develops the pictures he shot at a park that he may have evidence of the deed. Those looking for clear answers will not get them, but the mystery and the world depicted is exciting and leaves you wanting more with every scene (not least of which the brilliant finale, in which Hemmings participates in a mimed game of tennis). Other cool era signifiers include Herbie Hancock’s exotic jazzy score, an appearance by Jimmy Page’s pre-Led Zeppelin band The Yardbirds, and the fact that this was considered quite racy for its time, helping put an end to the production code and thus spawning the MPAA. Its surprising success in the U.S., helped no doubt by its reputation for featuring onscreen nudity, ensured that Antonioni would have more freedom to continue on his weird, idiosyncratic path. And if nothing else, we can thank this movie for what has come in its wake. No doubt we wouldn’t have other masterworks like Francis Coppola’s “The Conversation” and Brian De Palma’s “Blow-Out” without it.

The Passenger” (1975)
It is Antonioni’s specialty: his deep interest in exploring estrangement in modern life. Though some of his work may at times feel dated, if only because this is such a centrally opposite concern today, there are many aspects that still retain relevance today. “The Passenger,” the third of the Italian director’s English-language films, sees him teaming up with Jack Nicholson at the height of the actor’s early career. Playing a reporter making a documentary in Africa who is frustrated by his inability to get any interviews with the Chadian rebels waging civil war, he strikes up a friendship with another man staying in his hotel. The man then turns up dead, and Nicholson decides to take on his identity, essentially killing off his former persona and life. The ruse is a success, until his wife asks someone to find out more and Nicholson comes to realize the man whose identity he nabbed was running guns for the very rebels he was trying to interview for his documentary. He successfully makes the deal and gets some cash, heads to Spain and meets a girl who he begins an affair with (played by Maria Schneider), but things catch up to him. “The Passenger” is a brilliant look at wanting to ditch the past and reinvent yourself: Nicholson’s character is basically bored with his life, family and job, so he sees the opportunity for a new start and goes for it. This theme is at once a powerful metaphor for why we watch movies (to live vicariously through other people for at least a brief glimpse into another life) but also serves as backdrop for one of Nicholson’s most underrated and infrequently mentioned ‘70s films. His performance as the identity-switching reporter is another great reminder of just how damn good he was in those days, able to underplay a character to devastating effect. And the famous penultimate shot, a near seven-minute-long unbroken take, is nothing short of breathtaking.

Antonioni For Advanced Learners
The rest of Antonioni’s output can be fairly spotty. No observation of his career can be made without mention of 1970’s infamous “Zabriskie Point,” his second English-language film set during the counter-cultural youth movement in the U.S. (which we’ve written about several times, including in this feature about great directors who lost the plot). Like “L’Avventura,” it purports to be a mystery initially—did a young-hippie-cum-student-radical shoot a cop? But, as usual, “Zabriskie Point” was more consumed with exploring the aimlessness of its two characters via a trademark directionless eroticism. The picture was a huge flop in the U.S. and critically derided during its day. It’s subsequently been praised as a misunderstood classic, but as is usual in the age of revisionism and excitable rediscovery, that’s overstating the case. “Zabriskie Point” is not a flat-out disaster, but it’s not a hidden masterpiece either. Instead, it’s a problematic and uneven but fascinating slice of ‘70s cinema that all cinephile historians and Antonioni connoisseurs should track down.

The early half of Antonioni’s career is peppered with interesting, but largely unremarkable, post Neo-realist works that are never as affecting or as fully realized as the works of De Sica or Fellini (though his debut, “The Story of a Love Affair” is essentially a film noir). “Le Amiche,” is notable for its use of women as its central characters—a characteristic at the forefront of most Antonioni films—but was perhaps too talky and overcrowded in its mise en scene to be emblematic of his later, more powerful works. It’s 1957’s “Il Grido” (The Cry)—a type of emotionally internalized neorealism—the film before “L’Avventura,” that hints most at what’s to come. Featuring American actors Steve Cochran and Betsy Blair (dubbed into Italian) along with Alida Valli and Dorian Gray, the film featured a rare male lead for Antonioni, distraught and disillusioned, wandering the Italian countryside in search of purpose after his wife leaves him. While it’s perhaps not quite “essential,” it’s a critical step in the evolution of Antonioni’s sparse and austere style and a must-see for any Antonioni-ite. The Criterion Collection-minted “Identification of a Woman” from 1982 is about a self-absorbed film director in search of love and a girl who has vanished from his life—it’s a little shallow and short on the kind of substance that made Antonioni best films such beguiling and bewitching experiences. Later in life Antonioni suffered a debilitating stroke that would sideline his career for a decade, and make watching those subsequent films, like his “Eros” short and “Beyond the Clouds” (co-directed by Wim Wenders) nearly unbearable (sadly they feel like parodies of his work, bereft of the nuance and precision of which he was once a master). 1981’s “The Mystery of Oberwald” was his last true collaboration with Monica Vitti (though most assume it’s “Red Desert”), but poor notices have quickly made it a forgotten one that no studio has bothered to address on DVD. All of which is to say that if you’re curious and looking for somewhere to start, you could do worse than selecting one of our six essentials before wading in any deeper.  – Rodrigo Perez, Erik McClanahan, Jessica Kiang

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