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The Essentials: Michelangelo Antonioni

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 5, 2013 at 3:12PM

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, 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.
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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.

This article is related to: Michelangelo Antonioni, The Criterion Collection, The Essentials, Features, Feature, Monica Vitti, Jack Nicholson


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