It was once said that one admires Michelangelo Antonioni’s films without feeling fond of them; or one resists them, turning a blind eye to their beauty. It has also been said that his films teach us to see as we’ve never seen before. There’s an element of truth in these statements, particularly as far as his great trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse are concerned.
These remarkable works, made in the early 60s, are deeply pessimistic love stories. They are disorientating because conventional narrative is always avoided and it often seems that nothing whatever is happening except within the minds, or possibly the confused souls, of the participants.
Jeanne Moreau, who starred with Marcello Mastroianni as the loveless couple in La Notte, once said to me: “God, I was bored. But you can’t argue with Antonioni. He never replies.” Even so, the three films are revolutionary in form, eloquent in content and can affect you deeply. Is he the Henry James of film-making?
It’s unorthodox to prefer the far later Passenger and the fact I do probably says more about me than about the film (its alternative title is Profession: Reporter). But it too is a remarkable work and a major return to form after the incoherent, shallow Zabriskie Point. It is a bit like a heavily intellectualised Graham Greene story, partly because of its screenplay, by Mark Peploe and structuralist critic Peter Wollen (who was once a political correspondent in foreign parts) and partly because Antonioni was concerned with spiritual values. Jack Nicholson plays a burnt-out reporter who exchanges his identity with that of a man he finds dead in a North African hotel room. He does this to get away from the mess of his old life but discovers he is being haunted not only by a wife and friends who go in search of him but by strangers who are not going to do him any good. He starts a relationship with a younger woman (played by Maria Schneider) but the further he goes to escape his previous life, the worse the situation becomes. He ends up sharing the same fate as the man whose mask he has taken.
The film is beautifully shot by Luciano Tovoli in France, Spain and North Africa and intimates as much about the contemporary political situation as it does about the state of its protagonist’s mind. It also contains several amazing sequences, including a seven-minute take that has seldom been equalled – a shot that passes through the narrow bars of a window to frame Nicholson, moves into a courtyard then moves back to look through the bars again. The first time we see Nicholson, he is alive. The second time he is dead. Curiously, at one point in the film, Schneider finds a gun in Nicholson’s luggage and he takes it from her with a gruff “No.” It fits the film, but it also fits the fact that Schneider shot Marlon Brando in Last Tango, the film that made her famous. One dead star is perhaps enough for one so young.
Antonioni is known for his capacity to express alienation visually. The Passenger does that, as does Blow-Up and the aforementioned trilogy. The comparison has to be with painting, but also with a novelist’s ability to describe both a scene and a state of mind. If Antonioni is not particularly fashionable now, that’s our loss, not his.