The kind of movie that lingers on in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.
Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director who perfected a style of languid, weary alienation in a series of influential films mostly made between 1960 and 1970, is dead at 94. He died on Monday, the same day as Ingmar Bergman; with Federico Fellini, the three were sometimes thought of as the ruling triumvirate of European art cinema.
Although film lovers endlessly debated his best films, he had only one major international hit, “Blow-Up” (1966). Filmed in London, it starred David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in the story of a photographer who takes a picture of her in a park with a man, and then later, painstakingly enlarging his work, thinks he may have photographed a murder.
The film was popular because of the mystery of the murder, because of its portrait of “swinging London” in a moment of time, and because viewers thought they could see a flash of pubic hair. Those motives were unworthy of a film whose greatness depended much more on an overall tone of uncertainty and dread.
Antonioni’s international breakthrough came in 1960, when his film “L’Avventura” was booed at Cannes but inspired a joint statement by critics defending it. For audiences seeking the conventional, it was an affront: Rich people disembark from a yacht on an island, one of them disappears—and never turns up again, the mystery of the vanishing still unsolved at film’s end.
Antonioni loved to thwart expectations, showing his often decadent characters afloat in a world without resolution. “L’Avventura” was championed by the young critic Pauline Kael, but with his next film, “La Notte” (1961), she lost patience. In a famous essay titled “The Come-Dressed-As-The-Sick Soul-Of-Europe-Parties,” she wrote that she had tried to goad people into seeing “L’Avventura,” only to find herself detesting Antonioni’s next film:
“‘La Notte’ is supposed to be a study in the failure of communication, but what new perceptions of this problem do we get by watching people on the screen who can’t communicate if we are never given any insight into what they could have to say if they could talk to each other?”
In 1964, Antonioni made his first color film, elegantly controlling his palate in “Red Desert,” and when “Blow-Up” came two years later, he became notorious for color perfectionism in deciding the grass wasn’t green enough; he had it painted, and also a road, and a building. “Antonioni paints the grass!” he told me in a 1969 interview. “To some degree, all directors paint and arrange or change things on a location, and it amused me that so much was made of it in my case.”
Kael observed: “…he doesn’t tell conventional stories. He uses a seemingly random, peripheral course of development, apparently merely following the characters through inconsistencies and inadvertencies…”
She didn’t make that as a criticism, and when we spoke in 1969 Antonioni essentially agreed with it: “Until the film is edited, I have no idea myself what it will be about. And perhaps not even then. Perhaps the film will only be a mood, or a statement about a style of life. Perhaps it has no plot at all, in the way you use the word. I depart from the script constantly. I may film scenes I had no intention of filming; thing suggest themselves on location, and we improvise. I try not to think about it too much. Then, in the cutting room, I take the film and start to put it together, and only then do I begin to get an idea of what it is about."
I got an insight into how that process worked when in 1999 I received a letter from an actor named Ronan O’Casey, who said he played the “body” in “Blow-Up” and revealed that his character originally had a name, dialogue, and a role in the plot. By reducing him to an indistinct long-shot, Antonioni redefined the film and essentially shaped it into a masterpiece.
In 1970, he filmed “Zabriskie Point” in the lowest place in Death Valley, telling the story of two young American hippies disillusioned by the Vietnam era. And in 1975, he made the masterpiece “The Passenger,” with Jack Nicholson as a man who takes a dead man’s identity, tries to hide from the world, inherits the man’s problems, and finds that only a young hitch-hiker (Maria Schneider) cares much about him.
Born in Ferrara in 1912, he worked sometimes as a film critic before attending film school in Rome and later writing for such directors as Visconti. He made 17 films in Italy, mostly well received, before “L’Avventura” began his period of fame. Antonioni continued to work with varying success until 2004, although a stroke in the mid-1990s made it necessary to work with collaborators such as Wim Wenders. In 1995, he won an Oscar for lifetime achievement.
He was married twice, most recently in 1986 to Enrica Fico Antonioni, an actress and composer, who survives. He lived for years with the actress Monica Vitti, who starred in many of his films. He had no children.
Speculating on an afterlife, he contrasted himself to Bergman. The London Telegraph quoted him that “the Swede was solely concerned with the question of God,” while he was just the opposite.
Related Ebert articles: 1975 and 2005 reviews of “The Passenger.” The Great Movies section includes “Blow-Up” and “L’Avventura.”
There is a selection of great scenes from his films at blogs.guardian.co.uk/film/2007/07/michelangelo_antonionis_best_scenes.html