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Antonioni: Some Notes

The latest work by Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the premier artists in the world history of film, is Beyond the Clouds. I put no distributor after the title because, as yet, it has none for this country, although one is said to be en route. The picture was shown at the recent New York Film Festival. As one who has severely questioned that festival, I must note that it has shown all three of Antonioni's films since The Passenger (1975). The two others were The Mystery of Oberwald (1980), adapted from a Cocteau play (one of only three films in Antonioni's career adapted from other people's material) and Identification of a Woman (1982). None of the three most recent films has yet been released here. One doesn't have to believe that they are first-rank Antonioni in order to shudder at a system in which new works by a major artist are, so to speak, not acknowledged to exist.

Antonioni was 83 when he made Beyond the Clouds and, because of a stroke in 1985, paralyzed down his right side. He cannot speak. (I once had a ninety-minute conversation with him on PBS. When he was in New York in 1992, we shook hands--left hands--and he made some sounds in his throat.) How did he do a film?

First, the screenplay. It consists of four stories adapted from pieces in his book, That Bowling Alley on the Tiber. On this adaptation he had the help of his longtime collaborator Tonino Guerra and of Wim Wenders. Wenders directed the prologue and epilogue of the film and also served as standby director. (Wenders, eminent in his own right, has long been associated with the novelist-dramatist-filmmaker Peter Handke, whose work has distinct affinities with Antonioni.) The co-cinematographer, with Alfio Contini, was Robby Muller, a Wenders veteran.

Impressive though this team certainly is, its members emphasize that the whole project was closely under Antonioni's control. This becomes clear very early. The prologue done by Wenders is cinematically trite. We see the wing of an airliner above the clouds, then shots of the plane's interior and a man within it, then that of the man from the outside--as he looks through a window. (This shot, very familiar, always tickles me. From whose point of view? A passing angel's?) But, as soon as the first story begins, so does the real Antonioni. His ability to see is still overwhelming. We're in Ferrara (his hometown). A long perspective of a cloister-like walk with two modern young people in it strikes an Antonioni chord: people of the European present still embraced by the past, like it or not.

The man we met on the airplane is the compere for the film. He addresses us in English, sometimes on camera, sometimes on the soundtrack. He is a film director, the "I" of the Tiber book, thus Antonioni. (Whether this is true in the second story, where the man has an affair, is a bit more ambiguous.) John Malkovich plays this narrator-guide and is obviously meant to give the man depth. Malkovich has intelligence: even his worst performances convey it. But I don't find him, as is clearly intended, someone whom I immediately want to know more about.

For the first of the four stories Antonioni has found two young actors, Ines Sastre and Kim Rossi-Stuart, who are astonishingly beautiful. Lovers in Antonioni films are usually played by attractive people, sometimes more than that, but these two are remarkable. Antonioni seems to have departed from his usual practice in this instance to emphasize that their very difference from us, terrific though we of course all are, is emblematic.

The story (in Italian) is about a delayed encounter. The two meet by chance, then spend the night separately in different hotel rooms. Three years later they again meet accidentally, and this time they go to bed; but, after he has adored her exquisite body, he suddenly leaves, without actually making love. Nothing is said. We are meant to infer his thought that actual sex would be only a utilization of this perfect encounter, not its fulfillment. Tacitly, she perhaps agrees. If we can register the difference from the way we less beautiful persons might behave, the episode is, in two senses, platonic.

The three other stories are less resonant. In Portofino our cicerone meets a young woman who tells him in their first conversation (done in English) that she murdered her father, stabbed him twelve times. Since she was acquitted in her trial, the killing was apparently justified. (We don't learn why.) Her declaration doesn't discourage the man. They go to bed. Then he leaves, having said that he thinks twelve stabs were "domestic," fewer would have been murder. The woman's confession and its sexual effect on him have a certain pungency, but it quickly evaporates.

The third episode, set in Paris and done in French, is so neat that it's almost a satire on the neatness of French boulevard comedy. A wife leaves her husband because he won't stop an affair. She tries to rent the apartment of a man, she learns, whose wife has just left him for a lover. The two bereft ones get together.

The fourth episode, set in Aix-en-Provence and also done in French, is Gallic in a different way--a sort of Maupassant twist. A young man tries to pick up a young woman, even accompanying her to church. (Imagine a huge crucifix in the background of an Antonioni shot.) She is amiable, but she tells him that she is in love. As he walks her home, he asks what would happen if he fell in love with her. She says, "It would be like lighting a candle in a room full of light." When they part at her door, she tells him that the next day she will enter a convent.

There's also a witty little sketch, between the second and third episodes, apparently because Antonioni wanted a touch of lightness and a whiff of nostalgia. Marcello Mastroianni is a painter on a hill doing a landscape that Cezanne once painted, except that now there's a factory in the vista. Along comes Jeanne Moreau, who (in French) questions the worth of copying. He says that if he can at least repeat one gesture that Cezanne made, he will be gratified.

The chuckle is about more than painterly repetition. Moreau and Mastroianni were together in one of Antonioni's masterpieces, La Notte (1960).

None of these stories, except the first, incises deeply, but all of them are immersed in a sense of place, riche but not nouveau riche, no ostentation. Some old Antonioni elements and some new ones are used. We see a bit of a street carnival, as in Blow-Up; boats pass by just outside a window, as in Red Desert; the wind is a character in a scene, as in Eclipse. New elements are the cross-fades--I can't remember dissolves from one shot into another in previous Antonioni films--and the cuts to a black screen. But the most startling novelty is negative: the absence of his revolutionary attitude toward time. As Mark Rudman has said, "Antonioni is among the few directors who have had the courage to experiment with real time." (Remember the two lovers by the railroad track in L'Avventura, Vittoria at the airfield in Eclipse.) Not here. Time is used in conventional filmic ways. Apparently Antonioni felt that this material would not bear the weight of the virtual experience that he used so brilliantly in the past.

None of the performances is extraordinary, though all are adequate. The best-known actors, other than those already named, are Fanny Ardant, as the Parisian wife, and Irene Jacob as the nun-to-be.

This will almost certainly be Antonioni's last film. Whatever we think of it, we can all be glad that it was made. A collection of his writings and interviews, The Architecture of Vision, was published here recently. In one article he says:

     There are moments when I seem to perceive, however
     confusedly, the why of certain things. When this happens,
     I become a combative optimist. ... Am I not still here,
     making films (good ones, bad ones, whatever) which are
     always against something and someone? Isn't this obstinacy?
     And isn't this obstinacy itself a kind of optimism?

Perhaps the trouble with Beyond the Clouds is that it isn't "against" enough. But the obstinacy is inarguable.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann