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The Essentials: Michelangelo Antonioni

by The Playlist Staff
November 5, 2013 3:12 PM
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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.

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  • Kevin Z. Moore | August 1, 2014 9:50 PMReply

    Intelligent, well-informed analysis of Antonioni's art. Except for L'Eclisse in which he--as many, many others di--misses the point entirely. The vacancy at the film's conclusion suggests that Vittoria and Piero have begun to discover a new means of Eros, a healthy Eros, and therefor do not appear again in a typical Antonioni film. They are no longer characters in Antonioni's cinema and the cinema they are a part of has not been created. Antonion's "not this, not that," of tired, vacant romantic repetitions, of which the Adventure (L'Avventura) is the beginning of just that--a search for a new way of reacting/relating, a new eros, will need a new cinema to capture/picture/document it...the point of no return from the Old Cinema is where Antonioni's adventures in film-make take the viewer...but like Moses, he can take us there but he is not permitted to enter it. That adventure is for another filmmaker... .

  • jervaise brooke hamster | November 11, 2013 6:57 PMReply

    I want to bugger Gillian Hills (as the bird was in 1962 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  • jervaise brooke hamster | November 11, 2013 6:55 PMReply

    I want to bugger Jane Birkin (as the bird was in 1964 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  • Mediafiend | November 6, 2013 8:50 PMReply

    Thanks for including THE PASSENGER. It's my personal favorite, and I always seem to run in to people who haven't seen it. Fan of Antonionni and/or Nicholson, it's a must see.

  • jon | November 5, 2013 10:04 PMReply

    Identification of a Woman is vastly underrated. Totally bizarre and compelling movie with some bravura sequences.

  • Bill S. | November 5, 2013 8:53 PMReply

    Zabriskie Point and Blowup are two of my favorite movies (in my top 20 anyway), and I don't know why. The article helped me understand a little better as to why that is. I must find a copy of The Passenger.

  • Eh | November 5, 2013 8:11 PMReply

    No mention of The Mystery of Oberwald being one of the first narrative films shot on video? And it has been released on DVD, just not in the USA

  • tristan eldritch | November 5, 2013 6:54 PMReply

    Great work!

  • RP | November 8, 2013 2:32 PM

    Thanks, sir.

  • DUDDI | November 5, 2013 6:08 PMReply

    IMO, "Il Grido" deserves a spot on the list. For Antonioni, it's something like "All About La Grande Antonioni", it's there where he created his identity, and you can find that vision in every single movie that he made after this one. Anyway good list, and i hope more people will watch his work.

  • Rodrigo | November 5, 2013 10:51 PM

    Yeah, I definitely considering putting it in here and gave it props in the intro and outro (where it got a kind of mini write up). I think it's a very good film, better than IOAW, in my opinion.

  • DG | November 5, 2013 5:27 PMReply

    I like Antonioni cause his cinematography makes normal life look like science fiction

  • El Hanso | November 5, 2013 4:25 PMReply

    Thanks for this. I mostly agree with these statements, particular with the "kind of fascinating but not really working" on Zabriskie Point. I haven't seen many of his earlier films despite "Il Grido", but I really like exactly those films you singled out. I would go so far and say I actually love "La Notte" and "Red Desert," while "L'Avventure" is more in the area of admiration.

    I get why Antonioni puts some people off, why those people get bored. It's hard to argue that his films are slow and often seem rather low on action (action meaning anything substantional happening), but Antonioni fascinates me. Intellectually but often enough also emotionally.
    That's more than can be said about some other "slow" or "intellectual" auteur filmmakers. For example, besides Balthazar I've yet to find a Bresson film I actually like.

  • Rodrigo | November 8, 2013 5:49 PM

    Ah, well, that's the problem. Lancelot du Lac is easily his least successful film (read: probably his worst). A terrible place to start. That movie is for Besson-ites only.

    What you loved about Balthazar is in, Mouchette at the very least (Pickpocket, and A Man Escaped are equally good, but pretty different).

    I invite you to look through our Bresson feature and give his films another go. Especially if you like Antonioni. Totally different filmmakers, but the fact that you have the patience for his style makes me think you can appreciate Bresson.

  • El Hanso | November 6, 2013 8:23 AM

    I've been thinking about giving some of his films another chance. In some cases it's been a while since I've seen them. There are even films I haven't seen yet. "Diary of a Country Priest" for example. I feel rather conflicted about him, mostly because "Balthazar" worked rather well (very well) and most other films of his I've seen didn't really get to me. Hell, I mostly blame "Lancelot du Lac," a film that annoyed me to no end.

  • Rodrigo | November 5, 2013 10:40 PM

    Damn, as a big Antonioni fan and big Bresson fan, please give Bresson another chance. He is masterful. Though I do think Balthazar is his best film (which is overflowing with emotion IMO). A Man Escaped is probably the best prison break film ever. Pickpocket is terrific, Mouchette is superb, Diary of a Country Priest is a hard and austere, but rewarding watch and L'argent is brutally good.

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