Fresh off the end of an affair with an older man Vittoria meets the vital and exciting Piero. The two start to explore their passion for one another while wandering the deserted suburbs of Rome but their affair soon reveals itself to be doomed.
This pick was selected by Leeds Cineforum who invited Fabio Vighi, Professor of Italian and Critical Theory at Cardiff University, to write about themes in Antonioni’s work for us.
Leeds Cineforum are also keeping active during lock down in part by compiling this rich list of sites where films can be streamed for free. We’re always looking for new contributors so if you find anything interesting on that list or elsewhere and would like to flex your writing muscles please get in touch.
by Fabio Vighi, Professor of Italian and Critical Theory at Cardiff University
The dominant theme throughout Antonioni’s filmography is what we could call, borrowing from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s 1960s motto, “the non existence of the sexual relationship”. This theme is especially apparent in L’eclisse, where the couple’s failure works as the film’s leitmotif from start (Vittoria leaves Riccardo) to end (Vittoria and Piero break up), effectively bringing the main character back to her initial position. Particularly in his Italian films, Antonioni explores fraught relationships by focusing on middle-class alienation against the background of the country’s rapid modernization. But the originality of his cinema has less to do with sociology than with aesthetics. More specifically, it lies in the way narrative content is over-determined by precise formal choices, which result in a stylized framing of the characters’ positioning within their space. Let us consider the long, almost experimental opening sequence of L’eclisse (1962), set in Riccardo’s flat. The sequence details both Vittoria’s inability to come to terms with her state of emotional drainage and Riccardo’s morose ineptitude at responding to it. Antonioni’s minimalist long takes convey a sense of impasse and claustrophobia, while dialogue is sparse and cryptic. This is clearly a cinema that works by subtraction: while the viewer is denied assistance in retrieving narrative information, the camera slowly pans over various objects scattered around the room, as if more interested in framing them than narrating the lovers’ separation. This aspect of Antonioni’s cinema epitomises his typically modernist penchant for sabotaging narrative progression through the erosion of conventional representations of space and time. That is to say, tension is created not so much through action and reaction, as in classical cinema, but by the opposite process of abstraction, fragmentation and de-dramatization, which ultimately reveals the director’s fascination with seemingly meaningless formal patterns.
Both the painterly and the photographic dimension of Antonioni’s cinematic art has often been underscored. While this is self-evident when we consider his colour films from Il deserto rosso (1964) onward, it is mostly symptomatic of a profound preoccupation with the exactness of the shot’s composition. More to the point, what concerns Antonioni is the enigma of the image as captured in the meticulous organisation of the formal correspondence between characters, objects and landscapes within the frame of a shot. This fascination with the internal configuration of the image is so powerful in Antonioni that it invariably ends up hampering or de-emphasising narrative development. It is because of this hypnotic, at times delirious obsession with form that Antonioni’s characters are often deprived of psychological depth, objectivized, reduced to ephemeral, zombie-like appearances, or even erased from the story without explanation. Just to mention a few examples, think of Anna’s mysterious vanishing in L’avventura (1959); or the frozen silhouettes disappearing and reappearing in the fog in Il deserto rosso; or the photographer’s erasure from the last shot of the London park at the end of Blow-up (1966); or indeed the eclipse of the two lovers in the closing shots of L’eclisse. While this stylistic feature can be read symbolically to signify the alienation of modern individuals – their existential aimlessness and anxiety – at the same time it retains a deeper connotation which is at the heart of the director’s artistic inspiration.
The secret of Antonioni’s cinema can perhaps be summarised in what he once said to his friend Mark Rothko: ‘Your paintings are like my films, about nothing with precision’. Antonioni, like all great artists, knew that the cause of (visual) desire – the inspiration of the filmmaker – is ultimately lacking. It is because the object of our visual desire eludes us that we keep watching, looking for meanings. (In this respect, Blow-up is a filmic essay on the problem of vision.) This is why Antonioni’s camera is mesmerised by the possibility of capturing a deadlock, that is to say an instance of negativity, a trace of absence, which thematically emerges with the theme of the impossibility of the sexual relationship. Put differently, if one of Hollywood’s main ideological operations is the production of the couple as One, as a harmonious whole, in Antonioni’s films the couple can only be represented as a series of failures. And cinema for him is the medium through which these failures can both be aesthetically sublimated, and staged in all their radical ambiguity – an ambiguity which ultimately coincides with the enigma of the image itself.
Since its inception in the 1950s, Antonioni clearly shows to be more interested in femininity than masculinity. Yet this is not another case of what Laura Mulvey famously labelled ‘the male gaze’. We are not merely dealing with masculine voyeurism in relation to woman as object of desire. François Truffaut once claimed about Ingmar Bergman that ‘women are not seen through a masculine prism in his films but are observed in a spirit of total complicity. His female characters are infinitely subtle, while his male characters are conventions’. Despite the obvious differences between Antonioni and Bergman, this ‘spirit of total complicity’ is also what qualifies Antonioni’s gaze vis-à-vis femininity. His 1950s films, from Cronaca di un amore (1950) to Il grido (1957), all share a similar intention as far as their narrative dynamics are concerned. That is to say, they are built around a probing masculine fantasy about femininity, which develops along the following three stages: 1). Woman is introduced as an ambiguous signifier without a clearly identifiable place in the narrative order; 2). She meets man as lover/harasser, who attempts to make sense of her, to inscribe her into the chain of causes and effects that qualifies his world; and 3). His attempt fails, and the story ends with woman returning to the opacity of her initial position within the symbolic order. Essentially, the circular loop of these narratives speaks for the failure to symbolize woman – a sort of cinematic equivalent to Sigmund Freud’s famous Was will das Weib? (what does woman want?), a question he was unable to answer. With his films of the 1960s, then, Antonioni tends to focus almost exclusively on the feminine gaze as synonymous with an impenetrable desire. His ‘alienation trilogy’ (L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse, with the addition of Il deserto rosso) pans out as a prolonged cinematic meditation on feminine desire.
It is clear that for Antonioni it is woman, not man, who is able to get in touch with truth – but what truth? As a modernist director, Antonioni had not lost the desire to capture truths beyond appearances, but at the same time he had given up on a positively representable truth. As he once stated, for him women were ‘a thinner filter to reality’, meaning that if one wants to look for the kernel of the real, one should ask women. In this respect, femininity for Antonioni opens up the cinematic image to the enigma of its truth, which she alone can entertain a relation with. Characters like Anna in L’avventura, Lidia in La notte and Vittoria in L’eclisse, are able to reveal that beyond the domain of appearances there is not some positive and quantifiable truth, but what Hegel called the ‘appearance of appearance’, the quintessence of appearance itself, a dimension of reality that stands for its fragile and insubstantial ground.
This is why in Antonioni’s filmmaking the attempt to represent feminine desire more often than not turns into a hypnotic fascination with the abstract meaninglessness of the real represented in the image. As Gilles Deleuze put it, we are in the realm of the ‘any-space-whatever, which Antonioni pushes as far as the void’. In this respect, L’eclisse is one of the most captivating examples of the director’s fascination with the dissolution of meaning as aesthetic experience. Here, identifying with the gaze of his female character, Antonioni fully endorses his fascination with empty spaces, which confers upon his mature cinema the frighteningly frozen aspect of a self-contained universe inhabited by ghosts rather than traditional characters.
In his trilogy, Antonioni often positions his camera behind his female characters, sharing their viewpoint, enchanted and complicit with their contemplation of the outside world. L’eclisse pushes this formalism to the extreme. Here Antonioni’s typical shot di spalle, from behind the female character, not only creates a baffling distance between her and the viewer, but more crucially emphasises her strange and mysterious complicity with the object of her gaze. Think again of L’eclisse’s incipit in Riccardo’s flat. At one point Vittoria draws the curtains to look outside, and her figure is framed from the back against a wide rectangular window, while outside there appears a water tower resembling the mushroom effect created by an atomic bomb. The symbolic meaning of this shot would seem fairly obvious: Vittoria’s outward gaze is indicative of her desperate urge to escape the claustrophobic relationship with Riccardo, but all she finds outside is a reminder of modernity’s self-destructive destiny in the form of the atomic bomb, a pressing concern in the 1960s. Yet, apart from reinforcing the no-escape symbolism of the film, this shot also, and more importantly, retains aesthetic autonomy. For a few seconds, Vittoria’s silhouette is positioned next to the water tower. She is looking at it but there is no counter-shot, which not only emphasises the enigma of her visual desire, but also creates a formal correspondence between the shape of her body and the abstract architecture outside. As Antonioni used to say, ‘the shot is loaded’, it retains a formal balance that is both aesthetically pleasing and unfathomable.