[Originally published inQueen Anne News, Nov. 16, 2005]
[The Passenger screens at the Seattle Art Museum on Tuesday, March 24; details here]
My wife and I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger at a matinee in 1975 and went straight to the studios of KRAB-FM to talk about it. There we discovered—on the air—that one of us thought it was pretentious hooey and the other thought it was a brilliant, radical, and probably great film. We still cherish memories of that argument, although after revisiting the picture a couple of years later there was no daylight between us: we both knew we’d seen a masterpiece.
Antonioni’s oeuvre was distinctive from the outset, though never easy or comfortable. In the Fifties, in films such as The Story of a Love Affair and TheGirlfriends (films that wouldn’t be seen in the States till decades later), he showed himself to be the cinema’s closest equivalent to a modern novelist, exploring nuances of behavior and (mostly) alienation as his characters moved through an increasingly chilly, inorganic world. L’avventura in 1960 was one of the movies that set benchmarks for modern film artistry and set the tone for a decade of increased seriousness about filmgoing on the part of American audiences—at least, of those that frequented the arthouses. With Blowup in 1966 Antonioni crossed over into English-language filmmaking and regular moviehouses; his work remained as enigmatic—and as essentially nonverbal—as ever, but now he had Hollywood patronage (MGM) going for him, and the more or less coincidental whiffs of sensationalism deriving from a Swinging London milieu and a little envelope-pushing nudity. ZabriskiePoint (1970), his first (and only) film set in America and a dubious contribution to “the Revolution” much bruited about at the time, proved to be a fiasco with critics and public alike. But in ThePassenger, or Profession: Reporter, as the Italian version was titled, he had the star of the zeitgeist, Jack Nicholson, as a key collaborator. And he had what L’avventura and Blowup had also had: enough of a story—a mystery—to suck an audience in for whatever other itinerary the director might care to lead them on.
[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]
Long after any sane deadline for MTN 41—with half the pages already slapped down, in fact—Michelangelo Antonioni’s ThePassenger, formerly Profession: Reporter, formerly either TheFinalExit or TheFatalExit, I can’t remember which, was sneak-previewed in Seattle. Within a few days—just before this magazine comes out—it will have opened at the Music Box Theatre for what may well be a short run—short because people who grooved on Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and TheLastDetail and maybe even EasyRider may be frustrated by Nicholson’s low-key incarnation of a character with so little edge that he keeps sliding right out of the frame. It merits longer, more seasoned consideration; but for the moment, something ought to be said about it.
La Notte (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the second film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “trilogy of alienation” (it’s bracketed by L’avventura, 1961, and L’eclisse, 1962, both on Criterion DVD), stars Marcello Mastroianni as a celebrated novelist in Milan who has nothing left to say and Jeanne Moreau as his quietly unsettled wife who can’t seem to express all the disappointment building up behind her unfazed expression. Their marriage is inert at best but they seem resigned to their roles, at least until a hospital visit to a friend dying of cancer (he has champagne delivered by the nurse for the visit – but of course) shakes up Moreau.
The film covers just under 24 hours of their life together, not that they ever seem “together” even when they go out to a nightclub and, finally, an all-night party at the mansion of an industrialist who wants to hire Mastroianni to write his biography and run the public relations of his company. It all plays out in sculpted landscapes and creamy, austere modern spaces filled with reflective surfaces, but these rarified oases of affluence are no less alienating than the crush of traffic in downtown Milan. Mastroianni is so at home in the crowds that he just flows with the current like driftwood in a slow stream while Moreau, shaken by the visit to their terminal friend, wanders away from the crowds, braving the current in the streets or simply watching the rituals from afar. Just like Antonioni, who dispassionately records every nuance of the rituals and flirtations and seductions and watches Mastroianni’s fascination with an enigmatic beauty played by Monica Vitti, a jaded-before-her-time young brunette who see-saws between childish playfulness and world-weary commentary.
This was one of the films that inspired Pauline Kael’s “Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties” essay, a portrait heavy on the Antoni-ennui of beautiful people narcotizing themselves on small talk and cocktails and sex. Antonioni strips Mastroianni of the winking charm he brings to even his most rakish characters and turns him into an empty shell (“I know longer have ideas, only memories,” he tosses off with a self-effacing half-grin) with a self-awareness that suggests a desperation to lose himself in meaningless activity. Moreau is more haunting and less passive, her eyes and signature frown carrying a disappointment she shrugs away with a flash of a smile. It’s a portrait of lives disconnected from feeling or passion and a marriage that has slipped into mere routine, and you may find it mesmerizing and sophisticated, or merely elegantly-sculpted tedium amidst the idle rich and empty intelligentsia. I’m not an Antonioni fan – give me the strangled yearnings and corrupted societies of Visconti any day – and I find this among his more mannered and calculated films, so take my complaints as you will. I dare say it won’t convert any new fans, but if you love the sick soul of Europe in sixties cinema, this is quite the modernist contemplation of abstracted lives in the new urban world.Mastered from a new digital restoration from a 4k film transfer and it looks beautiful, clear and clean and sharp. You’ll notes stray hairs present in a couple of shots; I don’t believe they are print issues but artifacts from the camera negative or the editing process. Both Blu-ray and DVD editions include two original interview featurettes (one with film critic Adriano Aprà and film historian Carlo Di Carlo, the other with professor Giuliana Bruno discussing the role of architecture in the film) and a booklet with an essay by critic Richard Brody and a 1961 article by director Michelangelo Antonioni.
The Beauty of the Devil (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is René Clair’s playful take on the Faust legend, which stirs whimsy into the tragedy of a scholar who sells his soul to the devil. As the film opens, Michel Simon is the frumpy old Professor Henri Faust, a sheepdog of a scholar disappointed in himself as he prepares to retire without making his mark on the world, and the young and handsome Gérard Philipe is the seductive devil Mephistopheles, but fear not. To prove his power, the devil gives Faust youth and the actors swap roles, with Philipe’s young Faust the rejuvenated romantic discovering everything his missed in a life of scholarship and Simon playing the devilish clown as the bearish Mephistopheles, scheming to compromise and corrupt Faust at every turn with a twisted grin and a gleam in his eye.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1982 Identification of a Woman was a homecoming of sorts for the legendary Italian director, who (the studio-bound, shot-on-video experiment The Mystery of Oberwald aside) hadn’t made a feature in his home country since the 1964 The Red Desert. Back with screenwriter Tonino Guerra and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, it’s also a return to his old themes of the difficulties of love and relationships in the modern world. After pushing explorations of alienation and disconnection to the edge in films as Blow-Up and The Passenger, Identification of a Woman brings us back to a more familiar world, and a more personal one too.
Tomas Milian plays Niccolò, a film director looking for inspiration for his next film in the faces of women he clips from papers and magazines, and looking for someone to fill the hole in his personal left by his divorce. The fortysomething director finds his fancies drawn to much younger women and perhaps the subsequent emotional disconnection and communications barrier is a result (at least in part) of this gap in age and life experience. Then again, Niccolò predilections line up pretty well with Antonioni, who long ago had a affair with his beautiful actress and muse Monica Vitti (twenty years his junior). This is a portrait of a film director, after all, and it’s hard not to imagine Antonioni slipping a little autobiography in, either by design or by instinct.
As the film opens, Niccolò is with Mavi (Daniela Silverio), a spirited, assured, independent young woman who comes from money and privilege. Niccolò is adrift her society (Antonioni punctuates his unease at a social event with a dryly funny gaffe: Niccolò stubs his cigarette out in an ashtray, only to find it’s actually a napkin ring left on the table). When a “gorilla” (that’s actually how this rather polite thug is identified in the credits) delivers a veiled threat to stay away from Mavi, he becomes rattled by parked cars and unsigned deliveries and driven to uncover who is sending him these messages, to the point that he loses sight of Mavi. At one point quite literally. Afraid he’s being followed on trip to a country house, he drives like a madman through a thick fog on a country road, oblivious to her terror until she forces him to stop and then runs off, disappearing into the gray cotton sea. While you could say it’s a bit spot on as a metaphor — Niccolò follows and becomes swallowed up, adrift in his own private world while searching for someone out of sight and out of reach — it is also orchestrated with the grace and precision of a ballet and photographed like a dream. Antonioni’s camera simply floats along with him in his dreamscape, seeing no more than Niccolò until the faint orange glow of a cigarette anchors him back into the human world of anxieties and indulgences.
The color debut of Michelangelo Antonioni continues his exploration into the cinema of alienation with a new dimension. And it’s not just the expanded palette, which he paints in the colors of waste. This drama of dislocation and neurosis is set against an industrial landscape where the rivers are choked black and oily with pollution, the barren lots around factories are dead, gray graveyards of junk and ash and waste, the horizon is made up of smokestacks belching smoke and flames and even the parks hiss smoke from pipes running under the sod.
Giuliana (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s great muse) navigates this world tenuously, a fragile woman in a world where the detritus of industry has almost eradicated the natural world. Richard Harris (his voice dubbed into Italian) is a visiting corporate recruiter who becomes infatuated with the beautiful but nervous wife of his colleague. There’s a flirtation of sorts, but it’s as emotionally smothered as the industrial world around them.