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The Essentials: Michelangelo Antonioni

Features
by The Playlist Staff
November 5, 2013 3:12 PM
16 Comments
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La Notte

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

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

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.

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16 Comments

  • 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.


    http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/the-films-of-robert-bresson-a-retrospective-20120418

  • 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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