meaning of life, midlife, screen, sex

Beyond the Clouds (The Last of Antonioni)

The Late Show


Beyond the Clouds, being John Malkovich’s shirt, foreplay in Ferrara, The Passenger 

 
 
This is a post about the last work of Michelangelo Antonioni as part of The Late Show series at Shadowplay, a daily blog about film I actually read – it’s that good. 

Shadowplay: The Late Show

Beyond the Clouds (Al di là delle Nuvole, 1996) was the final feature film by Michelangelo Antonioni – Europe’s somewhat neglected master of 20th century cinema. In a career lasting almost 50 years, Antonioni made 16 features, including l’Avventura, Blow-Up and The Passenger. When he died in 2007, aged 94, Antonioni’s body lay in state in Rome; but for much of his productive life his work, though often acclaimed, was not widely enjoyed. 

Antonioni was a director of doubt, a talented pessimist with an inquisitive camera, who made beautiful, challenging films. The metaphysical and moral uncertainty of Antonioni’s characters – often struggling with modernity while failing to connect or find their place in the world – contrasts with the director’s bold, confident compositions. Antonioni’s characters might be upended by disrupted narratives and swamped by melancholy – ‘We always assume happiness is where we’re not’ (Identification of a Woman) – but they always suffer beautifully, and their deep unease is elegant and in style. 
Sophie Marceau in Beyond the Clouds, Black and White Film Still
got your back
Beyond the Clouds is comprised of four short stories concerning love, taken from sketches first published in That Bowling Alley on the Tiber – Antonioni’s book of ideas for future films. 
 
Production for Beyond the Clouds during 1994 took place in unusual circumstances. Several years earlier a massive stroke had left Antonioni barely able to speak and severely debilitated in his movements. He was only able to secure production funding when the director Wim Wenders agreed to serve as back-up on set. In return, Wenders filmed the framing narrative linking Antonioni’s four tales – about a director seeking inspiration for his next project. (The four short stories were directed entirely by Antonioni.)
 
Michelangelo Antonioni
niente

The critic David Thomson once suggested that Antonioni – ‘a man of vast intellectual sensibility and artistic aspiration’ – ought to be a character in one of his own films. In Identification of a Woman (1982) – his last title before Clouds – the lead character Niccolo is a discontented director tangled up in a sinister love affair while struggling to think of an idea for his next production.

Although Niccolo is still broadly a fictional creation, by the time of Beyond the Clouds, Thomson’s wish has finally come true, with Antonioni brought to life onscreen by John Malkovich as the ‘Director’. Antonioni’s younger alter ego roams though the film relating in voiceover his views on life and art – all of these observations culled from the director’s writing and interviews. 
 
John Malkovich, Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds
perchance to dream
The film opens with John Malkovich sat alone in an airplane, staring out the window. Dressed by Armani in an tight-looking shirt buttoned to the neck, Malkovich seems cosy with himself in the role of the travelling auteur, gazing out at the clouds while he ponders in voiceover what it is to make movies. This is the first of several buttoned up shirts and solemn, oracular musings; but it takes merely seconds for the suspicion to rise that casting Malkovich, getting him to pronounce on art in this way, might be problematic. Malkovich moodling about in designer clobber, reciting lines such as ‘I never discovered reality until I started to photograph it’, will not be agreeable to everyone.

The view from the plane dissolves through the clouds of thought and imagination, down to the stories beyond, and a wintry, foggy Ferrara, northern Italy, as Malkovich drives through the historical centre in a pervasive pea souper, ready to bear witness to the first of the four love stories.

Ferrara, Italy - aerial view of historical centre
destination Ferrara

Ferrara was the birthplace of Antonioni, and the historical and industrial Emilia Romagna city in the Po valley apparently had a profound lifelong hold on the director. The fog of Ferrara ‘clung to him all his life’, suggests screenwriter and friend Tonino Guerra, making Antonioni ‘a man who preferred to work in greys… who was never ecstatic when confronted with a blue sky.’*

Inés Sastre in Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds
Inés Sastre finds comfort in grey stone

In the first story, a young, beautiful couple meet and instantly fall in love. They are staying at the same hotel and seem set to spend the night together, and maybe the rest of their lives – but it doesn’t happen. The woman (Inés Sastre) begins to undress in her room, awaiting her visitor; as meanwhile the man (Kim Rossi Stuart) twice checks outside his door – apparently anticipating her arrival. The expected connection is underscored by the visual harmonies between their actions: she moves into her ensuite bathroom and reaches for a towel; hard cut to him walking out of his bathroom, drying his face with a towel. She lies down on her bed, and smiles, and waits for the young man to come knocking. But he fails to appear; and by morning, when he wakes, she has vanished. 

Their encounter plays out like a fairytale in the mist. The couple first meet in the street with the girl framed in the tall arch of a long stone arcade. At the hotel restaurant, the man glimpses the woman through a doorway. She joins him to stand side by side, their heads held together in a window frame; while later the couple return to the arcade, to drift in and out of the articulated arches. The repeated framing of the characters gives them a theatrical, painterly distance, a detachment which deepens the enigmatic, other worldliness of their story. 

Three years pass and the still young and beautiful couple meet again by chance, coming out of a cinema. They go to her place to make love. In the woman’s flat she is double-framed within an internal archway and the window behind her. They undress and the man performs an unusual form of foreplay. But at the last moment he backs away from coitus. Without uttering a word, he leaves the bedroom, gets dressed and quits her flat, abandoning the woman who is probably the love of his life. (Antonioni observed that only men who come from Ferrara would understand why this strange erotic failure might occur – but he did not elaborate.)

The man shuffles away down a deserted street. He passes a large, Renaissance building as the camera pans up the side of the edifice, to a high window where the spurned lover stands in the frame, looking out from behind the glass. The man returns her gaze, then continues away. His walk down the misty road is silent and long.

The long take is a staple of Antonioni’s visual style. Orson Welles criticised him for their duration. ‘I don’t like to dwell on things. It’s one of the reasons I’m so bored with Antonioni,’ Welles moaned to Peter Bogdanovich in their book of interviews. ‘He [Antonioni] gives you a full shot of somebody walking down a road. And you think, “Well, he’s not going to carry that woman all the way up that road.” But he does. And then she leaves and you go on looking at the road after she’s gone.’**

Monica Vitti in Antonioni's L'Avventura
Monica Vitti in L’Avventura

Towards the end of L’Avventura, Antonioni’s breakthrough film from 1960, there’s an extended shot of Monica Vitti advancing down a long hotel corridor seeking out her new lover, who’s gone missing at a party. The lengthy shot gradually brings Vitti’s inner tension to the surface. And then, finally her man is located, tangled up on a couch with a model he just met a while ago – having stated earlier that he loved Monica. And so Vitti tiptoes away and returns down the same hotel corridor in  another long take. But the repeat shot with similar action is now transformed from a tense anxiety to a pain of despair: she found the thing she feared she’d lost, and it turned out not to be worth much anyway, and yet still her heart is wounded. 

 

Monica Vitti in Antonioni's L'Eclisse
Vitti in L’Eclisse

In L’Eclisse (1962), Monica Vitti breaks up with her partner and takes up with a new lover (Alain Delon). Over the course of the narrative the new pairing are seen meeting, flirting, playing, falling for one another and becoming intimately involved. But Vitti has doubts about her new lover. Sometimes she feels that spending time with him is ‘like I’m in a foreign country’ – generally not a good sign. Nevertheless, as the story reaches a kind of climax, they agree to meet again and fix a time and a place. But neither of them shows up for the rendezvous. The film ends with a series of shots of familiar places that the lovers previously visited together. The locations are now empty, lonely and sinister. The sequence lasts seven minutes. 

Michelangelo Antonioni and Enrica Fico
Antonioni and Fico

‘Nothing happens,’ observes Antonioni’s widow Enrica Fico, reflecting in a recent interview on the ending to L’Eclisse. ‘Yet there is a depiction of the passage of time, of the light that changes – of all these details that change – of the wind that sweeps away the leaves and completely alters the landscape; the time that slips away and which slips away inside you and carries away the feelings inside you…. In the decision not to go to that date, there is everything. Yet nothing happens.’

When L’Eclisse was released in the US, Antonioni met and befriended Mark Rothko. He subsequently wrote to the painter: ‘You and I have the same occupation. You paint, and I film, nothingness.’ 

The nothingness is far from hollow, or empty. Antonioni’s long style is about the importance of looking and this requires an attentive patient viewer. His films force us to dwell so that meaning might percolate. You need to get into Antonioni’s groove and studied pace. If you turn up expecting his films to immediately match your tempo, you will likely become alienated. And while it is acceptable to feel alienated by modern life, it is not okay to feel this about Antonioni – he’s too good.

 

A train and a van in central London

The second lovers’ tale in Beyond the Clouds finds Malkovich the Director drifting round an out-of-season Portofino, in Italy’s Liguria. He bumps into a young woman and follows her down a winding labyrinth of narrow lanes to the seafront. It’s blowy, the sky is a turbulent grey and the sea is choppy. The woman, played by Sophie Marceau, has a job as a shop assistant. Malkovich stares at her as she begins the working day in the boutique. Although Malkovich’s gaze may spring purely from an interest in casting the woman in his next film, it also feels voyeuristic and lecherous. 

There follows some intricate imagery with glass as Malkovich is framed in the boutique window with Marceau contained on the other side rearranging the shop display. The camera pans and catches Malkovich’s reflection in the open glass door before he emerges inside – like a man born out of his own reflection. 

The visual eloquence contributes to the sense of enchantment. The woman and the Director circle in silence for a time and then the Director leaves the shop without speaking. The woman seems disappointed by his departure. She picks up with him later at a cafe, ditching her boyfriend so she can walk and talk and flirt with the visitor. Their interplay flows like a dance. 

The woman confesses that a year ago she killed her father, that she stabbed him twelve times. But she won’t say why. We may wonder if at some deep, humid level perhaps she is drawn to the Director as a stand-in father figure. But we don’t fear for his wellbeing, nor should we, as soon he finds himself in bed with a naked Marceau for a long, explicit love scene.  

The sex is like a high-end 90s porn film – minus pornland’s copulatory gymnastics – not so much the levels of explicitness but in the tone and also the music.

content warning

There is much nudity in late Antonioni. The distribution company Mr Bongo, who handle Identification of a Woman in the UK, claim the first time this film was shown on TV, the high flesh count caused such a rumpus, that the broadcaster Channel 4 was forced to introduce their famous onscreen Red Triangle system, warning viewers of explicit content. Mr Bongo has actually written this on the DVD box. And it’s a good story, except it’s not true. Identification of a Woman is not that wild, but it was one of several films shown in the infamous late night Red Triangle series of 1986. The warning system was introduced in response to previous controversies concerning the broadcaster’s adult schedule. (But also perhaps as a clever publicity tool. Although, the series went out after midnight, some of the quite obscure and arty films drew audiences in excess of two million viewers – which is unthinkable today.)

Sophie Marceau and John Malkovich in love scene from Beyond the Clouds
the unbearable closeness of acting

While Marceau is completely naked for the love scene,  Malkovich manages to keep his penis from view. At several moments it should be there, but isn’t. I wonder why and rewind in case I missed it. But still nothing. Where has it gone? Go back again. Pause: not so much interested to see his penis, as curious at its absence. The freeze frame reveals nothing, or merely that the actor tucked himself away behind his thighs – a funny thing to do when cavorting with Sophie Marceau.

Once the lovers have finished up, they part – exchanging last waves through the window. The Director relocates to his hotel terrace, where he paraphrases James Joyce and the descriptions of snow in the final moments of The Dead. There’s something about this being John Malkovich that makes some of these link scenes problematic. I enjoyed Malkovich as the swaggering insolent immoralist of Dangerous Liaisons. But his superior schtick with the nose turned up grew tiresome in time. Antonioni’s arty insights sound frozen in elitism when voiced by Malkovich. In fact, the telephone directory would sound superior recited by Malkovich.  

 

A Thousand John Malkoviches from Being John Malkovich
I’m John Malkovich!

And then came Being John Malkovich, three years after Beyond the Clouds, a film that completed Malkovich’s arc of transformation from leading thespian of his generation, to snob, to figure of fun. It’s the early middle of the film, the scene when John Cusack passes again through the suprise portal leading to another fifteen minutes inside Malkovich’s brain, to find the actor home alone ordering towels over the phone. This was my personal breaking point, listening to Malkovich spernicketting over the colour of bath sheets, wanting periwinkle, but they’re all out of periwinkle, so he has to go with his second choice of loden – which my dictionary describes as dark green. 

 

A London Train, Up on the Elevation

Story Three of Beyond the Clouds opens in a Parisian bar of red velvet and glass – chandeliers, windows, mirrors. A young Italian student approaches an older American man at a nearby table. She tells him a story she just read in a magazine; it concerns an Amerindian tribe hired by archaeologists to help find an Inca ruin. The tribe refuse to walk any further one day trekking through the jungle. Their leader explains that to cover any more ground might put their souls in jeopardy. This loaded ethnographic swipe at fast-forward modernity seems a bit facile, but seemingly works the lock, as the American and Italian woman become lovers.

Three years later, the affair is still on, and the American’s wife (Fanny Ardant) has finally got so fed up that she leaves him. She plans to rent Jean Reno’s flat. This comes as a surprise to Jean Reno, who didn’t realise his home was on the market. Reno has just returned from a long trip to discover his wife has left him, cleaned out their flat, even taking the kitchen units, and that she now proposes to lease the place out to Ardant.

 

Fanny Ardant and Jean Reno in Beyond the Clouds
hopelessly conflicted with you

Ardant and Reno meet as two broken hearts in a vast, eviscerated penthouse – with it’s tall curtain windows looking out onto a roof terrace, and beyond, to the spectacular views of the city in a grey drizzle.

Antonioni’s widow Enrica Fico recalls how the director liked to simply sit and stare at things. ‘When I think of him, I think of him looking. He loved to look. He looked at the details of things. Often, after he became ill, he would ask me to take him into the crowded streets of Rome and park the car, just so he could look at the people there.’

This belief in and attention to looking sent Antonioni’s films in many directions, often with beautiful outcomes. There is a moment when the camera trails Reno and Ardant around the open plan penthouse by following the reflection of their shoes in the balcony window pane. Ardant’s high heels double up on screen, floating twice: once above the wooden slats of the outside decking, but then also across the apartment’s stripped floorboards.

The two lost souls circle around in a flirtatious haze. Ardant steps inside the walk-in shower and speaks to Reno through the partition; just like she communicated to her errant husband through the shower glass in an earlier scene – two more in the film’s long series of transparent barriers, Antonioni’s key signifier of why it’s hard connecting and finding love (‘We are all separate.’ Monica Vitti ruefully concludes in Red Desert). 

The profusion and variation of glass, and its often deflecting, distorting surfaces, serve as a reflection on the difficulty of self-knowledge. ‘I’m no good at understanding myself,’ Antonioni remarked in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1967 (on the release of Blow-Up). Many years later, long after his death, his wife said a similar thing about him. ‘He was unknown, even to himself… not recognising his very self, his very feelings, not knowing even what love was.’

The end of Story Three sees Reno and Ardant stood close, but apart, in the empty living space – possibly on the threshold of a connection amid the leftover wreckage of two failed marriages. Reno reaches out to her and suggests ‘there is a cure for everything,’ and she replies with a heavy, heavy heart, ‘that’s what disturbs me’. She caresses Reno’s face tenderly, but looks away, tears in her eyes. 

Why the sad face? 

It is often Antonioni’s women who carry the sense of romantic doubt, sceptical at the possibility of two becoming one. That to hope or even speak of a connection only draws out its precariousness: ‘Each time I have tried to communicate with someone,’ mourns Jeanne Moreau in La Notte, ‘love has disappeared.’ Ardant’s tearful look tells of the sadness of exiting one failed, messed-up relationship, and carrying over her doubts into a new love affair just about to begin. 

 

Well, maybe fall better this time.

Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in L'Eclisse
I want to talk like lovers do

The film cuts abruptly to a high speed train barrelling through the French countryside. A man close the railway line grabs a young woman perilously near to the track, apparently saving her from a suicide bid. No further explanation is offered.

Inside the train Malkovich is wearing another Armani shirt buttoned to the neck. He is thinking. Actually maybe he’s ‘Thinking’. Or even ‘THINKING’.

A bourgeois woman enters his train carriage. The same woman featured briefly in Story Three, when she shared an elevator with Reno and flirted with him slightly – but he didn’t notice. She now takes a call from an ex and says harshly to never ever call again.

 

Monte Sainte-Victoire by Cézanne
Monte Sainte-Victoire
The scene in the train cuts to a curious hillside interlude, with Marcello Mastroianni in the role of amateur weekend artist. He is painting a version of Cézanne’s Monte Sainte-Victoire. But a nuclear power station has been superimposed on the celebrated rural landscape. 

 

Jeanne Moreau sidles up from behind some bushes and laughs at the painting. There’s a history to this reunion: Moreau and Mastroianni played the glamorous, imploding married couple in Antonioni’s La Notte (1961). ’Antonioni never made anything better than La Notte,’ wrote Philip French in The Observer at the time of the film’s reissue on DVD. (It is also Mad Men’s Don Draper’s favourite film).*** As Mastroianni defends his painting to Moreau, it’s not clear if this is two strangers talking for the first time, or a couple who’ve been together for decades, and the ambiguity seems apt.

Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau in La Notte
oh, it’s so hard to love, when love was your great disappointment

The rural painting scene was part of a longer section by Wenders that Antonioni removed in the final edit – one of a number from the German director that failed to make it into the finished feature.

Production for Clouds went well and without Wenders being required to stand-in for Antonioni. It was as they hit post, and it was time to splice the two directors’ footage into a coherent piece, that trouble broke out.  

Wenders retained last say on his portions of the film; but felt from the start that Antonioni viewed his involvement as a ‘necessary evil’ required to get the production underway. Another condition of funding was that the film should be no longer than two hours. Wenders had shot stacks of material, and likewise Antonioni – they would need to cut aggressively. At their first edit meeting in Rome, both directors watched each other’s footage in near silence. Except at one point when the largely aphasic Antonioni suddenly cried out ‘Niente!’ –  almost in pain at Wenders’ exteriors of his beloved Ferrara.  

The two men agreed to meet a week later to start editing. Before his departure, Wenders reminded his co-director of the contractual arrangement of sharing final cut. But his diary records how he feared Antonioni no longer felt bound by this agreement.

Seven days later they reconvened in Rome to find that Antonioni had removed huge chunks of Wenders’ footage. Wenders was incandescent. Antonioni looked at him and shrugged and said he liked it ‘‘‘better this way,’’ reports Wenders ‘…so sadly… as if his scenes have been butchered rather than mine.’

Wenders took a walk round the block, to get calm. And then back round a second time.The German director wanted to withdraw from the film on the spot. But eventually he simmered down and, over time, came to accept Antonioni’s version: ‘The result is a different film, really, perhaps a better one.’ ****

Vincént Perez and Iréne Jacob in Beyond the Clouds
still haven’t found what I’m looking for

After the anomalous rural painting scene, Beyond the Clouds moves abruptly onwards to Aix-en-Provence and the fourth and concluding story.  

Jeanne Moreau is now reading Doris Lessing in a hotel reception in the old quarter of Aix. In the same hotel reception, Malkovich regards a copy of Cézanne’s Monte Sainte-Victoire and then compares himself to a self-portrait of the artist hanging in the hallway. These overlaps between disconnected stories are perhaps intended to resonate, but are also reminiscent of a kind of farce, or TV sitcom, where characters inexplicably keep bumping into each other. 

The main thread of the fourth story is another chance meeting. This time the two lovers are Vincént Perez, in a dodgy blouson leather jacket, and Iréne Jacob (The Double Life of Véronique) rigged out at as cute and virginal. She is like an urban angel in fact, and Perez, and his jacket, can’t keep themselves from latching onto her, as the newly-met pairing wander together over several hours, from day into night. 

They criss-cross the narrow streets of old Aix – which looks lovely. She says she is on her way to church and does he believe in God? He flirts a lot in return, his intentions plainly romantic, not numinous. But she verbally shrugs him off – it is a reprise of the theme of renunciation from Story One. 

They visit a church, where she joins the congregation and prays. He falls asleep. When he wakes up, the young woman confesses to being good at praying. She also admits to wishing for an end to all forms of thought and to launch an escape from her body and its shortcomings and ‘too many needs.’ All the warnings are stacking up for Perez about his chances with this ethereal character. And yet he ploughs forward.

They walk some more. They disagree about the meaning of life –  she wants nothing from it, apart from stillness; he wants for everything before he’s dead.

It rains, a deluge. They get saturated, but don’t mind. She slips on the wet cobbles and doesn’t swear, like any ordinary mortal, but catches a fit of the giggles instead.

At the end of the evening Perez accompanies Jacob to her building with its high ceilings and broad, flock-wallpapered stairs. He follows her up the curling steps to her apartment. She opens the front door and before she goes inside – alone – she turns to him and announces that in the morning she will be joining a convent. Bang.

Details of Hans Holbein

So, she might have told him this hours ago. But then we would have missed on the calm quiet beauty of the unsuited couple perambulating and exchanging thoughts. And Antonioni is very good at filming people in the city, people walking in the city, arriving and departing in the city. 


The weakest of the quartet of lovers’ tales ushers Beyond the Clouds to its close. Malkovich, still lollygagging about at this late hour, returns to his hotel across the way and up to his room, reflecting in a long and difficult-to-follow voiceover on the problematics of making films and why he keeps on trying. There is a temptation to see these last words as valedictory, as Antonioni’s version of Prospero’s retirement speech from The Tempest. Despite a loose personal atheism, there is a spiritual component to Antonioni’s contemplation of his god-like role as a creator of worlds.

The camera stays outside in the street and slowly climbs up the side of the building in a sweeping theatrical composition featuring the various occupants of the hotel rooms, offering suggestive glimpses at assorted life stories, loves and lovers. There’s a moody U2 song playing in the background, Your Blue Room – which, I believe, was specifically written for the film. 

The final hotel window is for Malkovich – his face moving into view and then out again as he dissolves into the darkness. ‘We know [of]… the true image of absolute mysterious reality,’ he says, ‘that no one will ever see.’

And yet we keep on looking…

*
Antonioni's The Passenger, Film Poster
I used to be somebody else… but I traded myself in

There would be one last cinematic outing for Antonioni after Clouds, with The Dangerous Thread of Things, his disappointing contribution to the film anthology Eros (2004) – which also featured low-key shorts by Wong Kar Wai and Steven Soderbergh. 

Edward Said once described the late style of Ibsen and Beethoven as antagonistic towards their overall output, as if both artists viewed their careers as failures to be contested; that it was not, in fact, too late to tear up the plans and start again. 

Antonioni’s late style in contrast distills the doubts and discontents of his leading films from the 1960s and 70s. The director’s mid period of celebrated international productions – Blow-Up (1966) to The Passenger (1975) – featured active lead characters interrogating and kicking against their sense of alienation. 

David Thomson describes The Passenger as ‘one of the great films of the seventies.’ Jack Nicholson plays a TV news journalist on location in Chad, who assumes the identity of a dead man in order to escape a life that he feels is all played out. (Roger Ebert writes of Antonioni’s disoriented characters as forever being ‘on the brink of disappearance.’) 

The act of self-liberation proves futile, as Nicholson becomes differently entrapped – in the thick of an illegal gun running operation, and on the lam across Europe with Maria Schneider for company. They drive to southern Spain where eventually they run aground.

The first time I saw The Passenger, as a late teen, Nicholson’s initial break-out into space was cool and gripping. But his slide into a passive surrender, once he realises that switching passports won’t fix his disagreement with existence, provoked exasperation. At this stage of my development I expected films to ask difficult questions, but also to provide answers. I wanted solutions not incertitude. I had much to learn.

Jack Nicholson, London's Brunswick Square, The Passenger, 1975
a lonely Jack Nicholson crosses the Brunswick Centre 1975
London's Brunswick Square, 2015
the same place 2015

For several years The Passenger was either out of circulation, difficult to track down, or I just never went back. To mark the recent completion of a huge refurbishment, London’s Curzon Bloomsbury cinema hosted a talk by the architect who designed the re-build, accompanied by a screening of Antonioni’s film. Some of the early scenes from The Passenger are set in London and feature Jack Nicholson drifting through a deserted Brunswick Centre, where the Curzon Bloomsbury is located. In fact, Nicholson first sees Maria Schneider in the Brunswick (she’s reading, but we don’t see what – how frustrating). But only later, in Barcelona, do the two characters properly meet.

Jack Nicholson, London's Brunswick Square, The Passenger, 1975
Jack Nicholson watches Maria Schneider reading, London's Brunswick Square, The Passenger, 1975
Jack Nicholson wonders what Maria Schneider’s reading

I’d forgotten the scenario of The Passenger, as well as my youthful disappointment with the outcome. I settled into cinema’s deluxe seats, with the floating table and extra legroom, and once more became caught up in the film’s premise and flow. The extended scenes of Nicholson switching lives – first in a flyblown hotel room, off grid in Chad, then in London, and onto Germany – acquire a rare cinematic momentum that is involved but also watchful. The same happens in Blow-Up, when David Hemmings shoots and develops the mysterious photo set of Vanessa Redgrave in the windy south London park, finally revealing a hidden gun and a corpse.***** 

Half way through The Passenger, as Nicholson’s escape velocity turns to drag, it came flooding back how his lassitude once made me cross. But now I am older, I understand both how and why it can be that so many difficult questions are raised, only to be left unanswered. The nature of identity, its function as a prison house of sorts, is a core anxiety in Antonioni’s films – one of the several questions he revisits without resolution. I shifted in my comfy padded seat as I grapsed that if there is a problem with this lack of a neat conclusion, then the problem lies not with the film, but with life. And I found such thinking curiously reassuring. 

Almost ebullient, I settled back for the rest of the film.******

Antonioni looks in order to asks questions. Doubt is the signature of his work, which resists consolation. His legacy is the rejection of the comforts of classical narrative, electing instead for an openness of storytelling – what the screen writer Tonino Guerra called ‘the double nature of things’ (or, according to novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, an ‘opening up of meaning’ ).******* Many of Antonioni’s scenarios feature a character involved in a search and, as the film critic Edward Guthmann writes, this gives his films a ‘compelling sense of mystery.’

The viewer is absorbed by this mystery on the screen, challenged to figure things out for ourselves. But of course we can’t figure it out. And at the close, as the titles run, we find the lights go up with our doubts unassuaged. 

 
Vanessa Redgrave in Antonioni's Blow-Up

* In a November 1967 interview with Playboy, Antonioni defended his signature moody grey skies as not just tonal, but practical. ‘The sun limits [camera] movements…. turning through 180 degrees; it’s obvious that the sun will stop you from doing that sort of thing… with a grey sky you move ahead faster, without problems of camera position.’

** Ingmar Bergman, like Orson Welles, dismissed much of Antonioni’s work as boring. Bergman died the same day as Antonioni. How was it that day in heaven as two of Europe’s finest film-makers arrived on the latest shipment? Outside the pearly gates, Bergman probably interrogated St Peter (played by Max von Sydow, no doubt) over the concept of original sin. Meanwhile Antonioni stared through the lens at the grey mist of the after life, wondering how long does a long-take last for in eternity. 

*** Sometimes the culture appears to be talking directly to you, and this isn’t about schizophrenia. You’re watching a lot of Antonioni films and thinking about them much of the time. But you’re also listening to podcasts – because you’re getting the train to work as your bike’s buggered. And it’s the Bret Easton Ellis podcast and he’s with Kanye West discussing fashion and brands, but also film, 12 Years a Slave, and suddenly, from nowhere, Ellis starts speaking fondly, at length, about La Notte.

**** Wenders’ production diary recounts the moment when he had to tell Mastroianni, this giant of post-war European cinema, that virtually all of his acting had been excised from the film – how his role had been cut to the bone. Mastroianni exploded and instructed Wenders to remove his one remaining scene to spare him the humiliation – only to then relent and accede to Antonioni’s wishes. Antonioni was good at getting his way.

***** The extended sequence in Blow-Up where Hemmings develops the pictures he took of Vansessa Redgrave and her lover in the windy south east London park, had a powerful impact on the porn director John Staglano, growing up in a god-fearing Catholic household in Chicago in the late 1960s. Stagliano told me in an interview a long, long time ago, that when he started filming his so-called (ground-breaking) gonzo porn features in the late 80s, Blow-Up was an early inspiration. In Buttman, Stagliano’s character goes to a party with a camera and is ejected. He visits a local park and takes some pictures. Later developing the film in his home studio, he notices something strange sticking out of some of the bushes. But this time it’s not a gun, like in Blow-Up, but a woman’s backside.

****** The penultimate scene in the Passenger is a celebrated long-take tracking shot filmed before the advent of the Steadicam. The  seven-minute segment begins in Nicholson’s hotel room at dusk and travels out through the window and into the square outside, to then track round and back into the hotel room. 

******* In an interview for BBC’s Arena documentary from 1997, Robbe-Grillet praises Antonioni’s ‘rejection of a single totalitarian “meaning”… The meaning changes. That changing meaning means we are alive.’ 

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