Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007) was undoubtedly a major artist, and a hugely important, massively influential filmmaker, one of those few who really did change how people thought about the cinema and its potential as an art form. Not surprisingly, then, his films amply repay repeat viewings. (Hence the current BFI retrospective.)
That’s partly because the films are so rich and resonant, but also because they are so… well, puzzling. They’re not ‘difficult’ in the way a lot of late Godard is; they don’t put you through the emotional grinder as a Bergman film might; and they don’t feel as if they go on forever, as some ‘slow-cinema’ movies do. (Intriguingly, Antonioni – along with Tarkovsky – is probably the director who exerted, posthumously, the most influence over the practitioners of ‘slow cinema’, even though his own films tend to be neither long or slow.) But Antonioni’s films are challenging insofar as they are quite difficult to fix in terms of exact meaning. As an artist he was somewhat reticent, seeming to prefer understatement to rhetoric, allusion to exposition, questions to answers. That’s probably why my own feelings about his films have changed quite a lot over the years.
The first film I saw by Antonioni was The Passenger (pictured top), on its initial release; I was a student getting very seriously into movies, and the film knocked me out. In the next couple of years – this was before VHS tapes, let alone DVD or BluRay – I caught up with Blowup (which I generally liked, especially the sequence where the photographer repeatedly enlarges a couple of pictures), with Zabriskie Point (of which I was a little less fond), and then La notte, L’avventura and Red Desert, about which I had decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, I loved the cinematography, and was probably rather taken by Monica Vitti; on the other, I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to take away from the stories – not that ‘stories’ seemed the right word for such meandering, uneventful narratives. I was also, I confess, a little put off by everyone going on about how Antonioni’s films were all about ‘alienation’ (the word was very fashionable in the 1970s and ’80s). I would ask myself how and why a director who appears not to believe in the possibility of real communication could even bring himself to make films. Oh well, I was younger then…
Things changed some years later when I had the opportunity to catch up with some of his earlier films, particularly Cronaca di un amore (Chronicle of a Love Affair) and La signora senza camelie (The Lady without Camelias). These too turned out to be about people not really communicating very well with one another, but to me they felt rather more approachable than La notte and L’avventura. They persuaded me that I should go back and give those later films another chance, which I did, getting a lot more out of them this time around. I also caught up belatedly with L’eclisse, which I found… well, puzzling again, yes, but rivetingly so.
By then I had come to realise that the very strangeness, the enigmatic elusiveness, of Antonioni’s films was what made them so distinctive and so rewarding. Even if one revisits them fairly often, one will still be noticing new things – some of them new things that bring further puzzlement. (I’m not just talking about the characters’ motivations or the narratives; quite often a choice of camera angle, or an edit, or a camera movement, or even an aspect of the decor, can feel quite eccentric.) And that’s great; if we accept that paintings, sculptures, poems, novels or pieces of music can be stimulating and enjoyable even if they don’t tell a neat and tidy story, why should we mind if a film leaves plot strands untied – or doesn’t have much of a plot in the first place?
I’ll confess now that I don’t have as much time for Antonioni’s last feature or for his contribution to Eros, but hey, even Hawks, Kurosawa and Eisenstein had their off days! Very few filmmakers, if any, can be said never to have made a disappointing movie. Moreover, very few filmmakers can be said to have exerted as great an influence as Antonioni did on the directors who followed him. I even considered compiling an A-Z of some of the filmmakers in whose work we can perhaps detect, here and there, the maestro’s influence – how about starting with Theo Angelopoulos and ending with Andrei Zvyagintsev? – but then I realised I’d have to make some impossible choices: Davies, Denis or De Palma? Jancsó, Jarmusch or Jia Zhangke? Klimov, Kieslowski or Kubrick? Malick, Mann or Martel? You probably have your own ideas about which filmmakers have been most profoundly influenced by Antonioni; if so, feel free to comment below.
Antonioni’s standing doesn’t depend on the films of others, anyway, but on his own, of course. And there are quite enough of them that may justifiably be described as ‘great’ for their creator himself to be accorded the status of one of the cinema’s true ‘greats’. His camera inspects the world from unusual angles, so that our view of it is not a matter simply of accepting what we are shown, as happens with most films; with Antonioni’s work we frequently have to ask ourselves questions, because he prefers showing us things to telling us things. That requires of the viewer not passive consumption, but an active engagement of the imagination and intellect; that’s as true of comparatively unknown 50s like Le amiche and Il grido as it is of later, more experimental works like Red Desert or Identification of a Woman, or his monumental (and wholly characteristic) documentary on China That aesthetic is still, I believe, a recipe for superior cinema; think of recent titles like Roma, Burning, The Wild Pear Tree or Zama. One or two of those movies, I suspect, would not and could not have been made if Michelangelo Antonioni hadn’t decided, decades ago, to push back the boundaries of cinematic storytelling by reframing the world he found before him.
The above piece is an edited and modified version of a programme note I wrote to accompany my recent illustrated talk at BFI Southbank entitled ‘Michelangelo Antonioni: Chronicle of a Modernist’s Career’. The BFI’s comprehensive retrospective of Antonioni’s films continues until the end of February 2019. Further details here.