Geometry Of Feelings

Film still for Geometry Of Feelings

The rerelease of 'L'eclisse' brings the high-modernist cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni, with its love of architecture, back to the big screen. Guido Bonsaver describes the appeal of the anti-Fellini.

Nanni Moretti, interviewed in Sight & Sound, once said that lovers of Italian films are divided into two camps: Antonioni versus Fellini. A supporter of the Fellini camp, Moretti indicated his preference for that director's ego-centred imagination, kind-hearted social critique and joie de vivre. But what are the qualities that characterise Michelangelo Antonioni? Formal experimentation and a disregard for traditional storytelling are the first that spring to mind. A fascination with modernity and a set of characters in the midst of existential crises come close second. If a personal style and philosophy are intrinsic to the notion of the film-maker as an artist, then Antonioni passes the test. And this month's rerelease of L'eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), winner of the Cannes Special Jury Prize, invites us to reflect on his early achievements and to ask what his films still offer 21st-century cinema-goers.

L'eclisse is the third film in the black-and-white trilogy that established Antonioni as a ground-breaking director. Taken together, L'avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La notte (The Night, 1961) and L'eclisse display three overarching qualities. First, human feelings are explored through unconventional means. Antonioni himself in those years described his interest in the techniques of the French nouveau roman, and his films adopt a similar approach. The camera is turned into an inquisitive eye, scanning the surface of things, moving from familiar objects to details of the human body or flashes of landscape. From this comes Antonioni's detachment from traditional film narrative, his refusal to present us with three-dimensional characters with a clear past and present. What some viewers find frustrating and others stimulating is his attempt to describe psychological states through visual means.

The second quality concerns the formal substance of these films. Antonioni's interest in showing rather than telling a story is reflected in his framing, where the search for meaning becomes a quest for signs of harmony and order in a chaotic world. Inscribing reality within the rectangular geometry of each shot is an act that is philosophical as much as technical. Hence Antonioni's fascination with linear perspectives, geometrical objects, architectural forms. English-speaking critics have often pointed to a parallel with modernist art, but this risks confining the discussion to a mere matter of cross-fertilisation. Rather, Antonioni seeks the linear and geometrical from a need to find signs of sense in an otherwise meaningless world. He does not want to praise or imitate the stylised beauty of modernist art but is attracted to it for its attempt to rationalise reality. The angular shapes of EUR, Rome's modernist district, or the simple lines of an angle-poise lamp stand as symbols of our endeavour to give order to complexity and multiplicity. Equally important is the fact that this is a frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful endeavour.

The third and perhaps most controversial aspect of Antonioni's cinema is found in an obsessively recurrent theme. An all-seasons term often adopted to describe it is 'alienation', used loosely to refer to the director's penchant for bourgeois characters suffering from identity crises. Lack of communication and understanding between lovers is a typical ingredient, though the crises also extend to the way individuals relate to society and nature. Modernity and wealth might be captivating, but there's a sense too of a lost capacity to be at one with both oneself and the world. This is far from the Marxist idea of alienation, nor does psychoanalysis provide a key. What we see are characters at a loss over who they are and what they want, with no attempt at an explanation or resolution of their state.

Are these symbols of our own detachment from nature and history? Perhaps, though Antonioni would reject any such sweeping generalisation. But certainly their neurotic personalities add an unnatural quality to his films. Monica Vitti's changing moods in L'avventura and L'eclisse seem sometimes theatrical and wooden not because she's a poor actress but because her character is suspended in a cinematic limbo, acting out a personality crisis that pre-dates her appearance on screen. That a female character is the vehicle for such crises invites a critique based on gender politics: here we have men as symbols of rationality and power contrasted with women's non-rational, instinctive and frail minds. Bourgeois, female, beautiful but lost – whether we like it or not, this is a cliché in Antonioni's films of the early 1960s.

Masterclass in technique

The release of a new print of L'eclisse offers us a renewed opportunity to appreciate the full sophistication of Antonioni's black-and-white work. Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo at the peak of his career – the following year he was to work on Fellini's 8 1/2 – provides sharply defined lighting that allows the director to turn his limited colour palette into a powerful tool to reinforce his formal definition of space. If there is a film that justifies the hesitation of postwar film-makers to move to colour technology, it is L'eclisse. Antonioni immediately became an innovator in colour with his next feature Il deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964), but L'eclisse ranks among the most sophisticated black-and-white films ever made.

The opening sequence is a masterclass in cinematic technique. As the credits scroll across a black background we are alerted to the director's intentions when a catchy pop song is abruptly replaced by the strident notes of an atonal piece of music. The film then begins with a long sequence during which the camera probes objects and people in a room, accompanied only by the unnerving buzz of an electric fan. The preference for long, static takes could suggest a link to Antonioni's past as a neorealist, but a closer look reveals that the slow pace of the narrative is counterbalanced by a fragmented editing of the scene. We are presented with snapshots of reality and thus made aware of the centrality of the mise en scène. Attention to detail is paramount as an abundant amount of information and symbolic references are presented visually to the point where the characters' dialogue becomes redundant. The dark pyramidal obelisk standing next to the male protagonist acquires full meaning when compared with the objects Vittoria (Monica Vitti) is rearranging behind a propped-up empty frame. The end of their love affair is communicated by her removing one of the two objects from the frame, while at the same time this gesture works at a meta-cinematic level to remind us of the director's careful arrangement of objects within each shot.

Words get in the way

Antonioni's formalism goes beyond the peppering of the realist setting with symbolic references, however. As was suggested earlier, a quest for a lost sense of harmony guides the director's camera. And this is present throughout the film. The break-up of Vittoria's relationship with a left-wing intellectual – as suggested by the pile of Communist cultural journals on a coffee table – takes her to the other end of the political spectrum. During a visit to Rome's chaotic stock exchange, she meets Piero, a raffish young share-trader played by a brilliant Alain Delon. In many ways he is the product of Italy's new-found wealth and cult of beauty: he drives a two-seater Alfa Romeo (an icon of the Italian swinging 1950s) and when the car is stolen by a drunk who kills himself in the process, all Piero is concerned about is the cost of the repairs. Even in this scene the dialogue is almost redundant and Piero's selfishness is somewhat over-emphasised. But what redeems it is Antonioni's meticulous filming: the detail of a hoist's chain slowly emerging from the flat surface of the water to pull out Piero's car is both aesthetically accomplished and symbolically charged. This is Antonioni at his best – and the plot becomes almost an impediment, a necessary evil.

L'eclisse is also a study in how modern culture defines our perception of reality. However mannered his representations, there is no doubt that Antonioni was tapping into a sense of unease that a few years later would explode in the students' and workers' protest movement and subsequently in acts of terrorism. The depiction of the stock market has a surreal, documentary feel: millions of Lira are made and lost in the space of seconds and Vittoria's incapacity to comprehend it shows capitalism as an oligarchy where a few pull the strings while the rest look on in amazement. Similarly her encounter with third-world culture – during a visit to a friend who used to live in Kenya – only produces embarrassing misunderstandings. All Vittoria and her friend can think of doing is to improvise a childish party where they dress up as African warriors and dance around the flat. This sense of unease, of a lack of understanding, spectacularly takes over in the final scene of the film.

Here the camera slowly revisits the places where Vittoria and Piero have previously met. Only now they are nowhere to be seen. The absence of the protagonists concentrates the spectator's mind on the urban landscape. Dictated by the straight lines of Rome's EUR district, the shots provide the pleasure of composed vistas mixed with puzzlement as to their meaning. An anonymous character descending from a bus holds a newspaper whose headlines are clearly visible: "The Atomic Age"; "Peace Is Weak". Does Antonioni want us to reflect on the fragility of modern life? Once more there is a sense that words get in the way since the beauty of the sequence lies in what is outside language. Banishing the main characters allows Antonioni to frame his vision of modern society as the camera slowly scans the streets and fills the screen with urban details juxtaposed with a few signs of the natural world: birds perched on a geometrical roof; water trickling from a barrel; a horse trotting down a deserted avenue. The relation of industrialised society to nature evoked in this collection of silent, documentary-like shots is at the centre of Il deserto rosso to the extent that it has been hailed as the first ecologically minded movie of world cinema.

Imperfect relationships

Antonioni is not a storyteller, so to criticise him for not telling entertaining stories misses the point. Also a painter, he is interested first and foremost in the pictorial. Anecdotes of trees and lawns being colour-sprayed during the shooting of Il deserto rosso show the lengths to which he was prepared to go to create the desired visual effect. Yet the pictorial here is not at the service of postcard beauty or sensual landscapes but rather seems to reflect an uneasiness felt by the characters as much as by the director. This is at least what one can conclude from the fact that with his return to film-making after a period of ill-health – with Al di là delle nuvole (Beyond the Clouds, 1995) and the short Il filo pericoloso delle cose (2001) – Antonioni is still exploring the themes of his 1960s features: the imperfect relationships between nature, society and the individual.

Pictorial beauty and existential broodings: if this is Antonioni's legacy then it is tempting to look for other films that adopt a similar approach. Kie´slowski's Three Colours trilogy (1993-4) and Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984) are obvious choices. But is the hallucinatory quality of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) also a homage to Antonioni's work? Colonel Kurtz's unexplained crisis; the mixture of suspended action and beautiful shots; the aesthetics of violence and destruction – think of the gigantic explosion concluding Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1968); the impression of a world that has lost its sense of direction: all these are tenuous but indicative traces. And Joseph Conrad – whose Heart of Darkness is the inspiration for Coppola's film – is one of Antonioni's favourite novelists too for his capacity to depict the alienation of characters from their environment. In her acceptance speech after winning the Oscar for Best Orignal Screenplay with Lost in Translation (2003) – a visually sophisticated study of two people in a foreign landscape struggling to give sense to their daily lives – Coppola's daughter Sofia unsurprisingly mentioned Antonioni as one of her sources of inspiration. Another such film is Lynne Ramsay's second feature Morvern Callar (2001), the story of a young Scottish woman's existential journey told in brilliant visual and musical terms.

In 1995 Antonioni received an honorary Academy Award "in recognition of his place as one of the cinema's master visual stylists". Three years earlier Hollywood had granted an honorary Oscar to another unawarded director from Italy, Federico Fellini, "in appreciation of one of the screen's master storytellers". It was a belated but fitting act of double homage. If Fellini deserves the plaudit of great storyteller, there is little doubt that Antonioni – love him or not – remains a master visual stylist.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012