Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Written by Michelangelo Antonioni, Giorgio Bassani, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Diego Fabbri, Roger Nimier, Turi Vasile
In 1953, Michelangelo Antonioni directed the episodic I vinti (The Vanquished), quite possibly the least “Antonioni-esque” feature he ever made (the roster of credited writers above is some indication of the impersonal nature of the film). Comprised of three vignettes about troubled youth in France, Italy, and England, the film at times comes across almost as a moralizing after school special, whereby it attempts to draw attention to the desperate and destructive state of young people during this period. But while the film’s obvious didacticism is its least laudable characteristic, I vinti is nevertheless a fascinating examination of this “burnt out generation.”
These young people were just children during World War II. They’ve grown up in a time of upheaval and violence, and now as society has progressed and begun to stabilize, they vainly cope with a new post-war modernity. They act out in this violent world by committing their own acts of violence, sometimes for egotistical achievement, sometimes for ideology, sometimes out of sheer greed or boredom. The youth are blinded by a mentality of personal gain and selfishness, which is further blurred by political and social conditioning. They paradoxically seek an adult form of independence, but are in many ways reliant upon, and restrained by, a familial and collective trust. The parents in the film, as well as the film’s opening narration, seek to pin down the aggressive behavior, attributing their misdeeds to factors ranging from gangster films to “boogie-woogie” music.
The three stories were ripped from the headlines, and their subsequent adherence to what really happened was the cause of considerable acrimony when the film came out, not only from the families of those involved, but also from various sociopolitical factions. The Italian episode in particular was subject to censorial demands and alterations. However, it is presented uncut in the new Blu-ray of the film. This release also includes interviews with actor Franco Interlenghi (from the Italian segment) and writer/producer Turi Vasile, each sharing some background on the production along with their personal recollections. There is also Tentato Suicidio, Antonioni’s contribution to the omnibus feature Love in the City, which itself will be released on Blu-ray July 22.
The first segment of I vinti is set in France and revolves around a group of young people who decide to kill one of their supposed friends. The violent act is all part of their general preoccupation with doing something simply for the hell of it, ignorant of any potential repercussions. Many are only concerned with good times and a worldly life of wealth. Their cruel ambitions lead them to the countryside, an ironically idyllic backdrop for the murder. The second portion of the film, the controversial Italian episode, has its main protagonist acting out for ideological purposes, his confused politics matching his youthful heedlessness. This segment seems especially born of World War II’s aftermath, with a focus on the black market that was then something of a necessity and is now a more stringently patrolled offense. Finally, the English segment concerns a young writer who for his own whimsy, and later publicity, kills an aged prostitute and toys with the police as they conduct their investigation. Widely considered the best of the three segments (Vasile says it also illustrates “Antonioni’s Anglo-Saxon bent” that would emerge in Blow-Up), this story is the most enduringly relevant, with contemporary media more obsessed than ever over self-made stars and scandal.
While Antonioni’s work frequently focuses on the role ambiguous emotions play in defining characters and their actions, this is one of his few films where motivation is derived more overtly from political and economic foundations. I vinti expressly stresses the fluctuating times as being a catalyst for these lives of misdirection. Similarly, the use of location in this film, an otherwise key facet of Antonioni’s methodology, serves essentially no more a purpose than being where the action happens to take place, aesthetically reflecting or suggesting little about the characters and their decisions.
Such a cinematic assessment of these troubling concerns was prevalent in Italy during this time (see Fellini’s I Vitelloni of the same year, with its assortment of aimless layabouts, or, later, Pasolini’s Accattone). But part of the point of I vinti, with its Europe-spanning division, is the universality of these issues: the inflated value of effortlessly earned money, the disdain for hard work, the obsession over celebrity and sensationalism, and the complex youthful desire for self-determination. Still, despite its diverse settings, one can’t help but think of Italian cinema in particular while watching the film, and not just because of its director. In many ways, I vinti represents what happened to characters like young Bruno in Bicycle Thieves or the world-weary children in Paisan, as they make their way to the self-indulgence of Marcello Rubini in La Dolce Vita. I vinti is perhaps what comes between.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT
Max Ophüls’ third feature in America, Caught, from 1949, is an evocative amalgam of a domesticated melodramatic tragedy and a dynamic film noir sensibility. The picture stars Barbara Bel Geddes as Leonora Eames, a studious adherent to charm school principles who dreams of becoming a glamorous model, or at least marrying a young, handsome millionaire. She gets the latter when she meets Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), a wealthy “international something” who gives her the superficial materials she desires but little else. Their marriage is an arduous sham. He works late hours on unclear projects while she is left to dwell uselessly in their extravagant mansion. He’s cruel to her and careless. A way out of the stifling relationship comes in the form of a job as a doctor’s receptionist. Leonora leaves Ohlrig and moves into Manhattan, where she eventually shows a knack for her newfound profession. There she also falls for pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason, in his first Hollywood role). As the film’s title suggests, Leonora finds herself emotionally and ethically caught: caught between who she is and what she tried to be, and what she’s become and what she now hopes for. A confrontation is inevitable, but what isn’t expected is the shocking conclusion of the film. A forbidding decision provocatively questions the morals of these characters and our subsequent judgment of their actions, and the final minutes of the film contains the makings of one of Hollywood’s most bizarre “happy endings.”
The Dorothy Dale School of Charm gives Leonora a superficial “social education,” where she learns diction and posture and how to handle herself when out and about with society’s elites. It’s on her way to a swanky yacht party that she meets Ohlrig. He’s heard before he’s seen, as he’s below the pier and out of her and our view. Such an introduction foreshadows their marriage, itself marred by each of them being out of sight and out of mind. She is suspicious about his invitation to ride with him — men, after all, have only one idea — and he is vague about who he is and where he’s going. After this first meeting, they continue seeing each other, despite apparent coldness and tension. He thinks she’s only after his money, but they marry anyway. (Admittedly, in the beginning, though she doesn’t always have money for lunch, she does dream of mink and chinchilla.)
With the settings of their initial meeting being a foggy pier and outside a dimly lit warehouse, our noir sixth sense tells us things are not going to go well for this romance. Once married, Leonora clearly doesn’t fit in her new life, and we never feel satisfied either. Her anxiety feeds our own trepidation about what she’s gotten herself into. Ohlrig’s large house feels paradoxically more claustrophobic than her old, cramped apartment. It has an empty fullness, reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu. She complains she never sees her husband and he counters with insinuations: “You got what you wanted,” he tells her, obviously still under the impression she is after his wealth, “You’re wearing it.” She’s a wreck, and he’s insecure, careless, and irrationally explosive. Her charm school pretense couldn’t have prepared her for this.
When she finally gets the nerve to leave and meets Larry, it’s a different world. He and his partner are in over their heads with their busy practice. It’s in a rather poor section of the city; it’s hectic and not at all glamorous. But there’s life there, and indeed, life there soon shall be. Larry initially criticizes Leonora for being too fancy, but their mutual attraction grows more and more pronounced, just as she discovers she’s pregnant … with Ohlrig’s child. She now faces compassion or coldness, secrets or the truth, divorce or a child.
Romantic passions run high throughout Caught, yet all three leads reign in any overtly theatrical excess, maintaining a balanced degree of emotional expressiveness even in times of scandalous behavior. There is also a significant level of socioeconomic concern, which drives a considerable portion of the drama. The genuine or perceived importance of money is related throughout, and the placement of an individual comfortably into an appropriate class is but one conveyed anxiety, at least for Leonora, with Ohlrig and Larry representing opposite poles of economic standing.
Ophüls’ renowned camera work is on full display (it was while working on this film that Mason penned an amusing poem regarding, “A shot that does not call for tracks” being “agony for poor old Max”). Even in Leonora’s constrictive apartment early on, or later in Larry’s office, the camera glides in all directions, in continually impressive and original patterns. One particularly striking shot has the two doctors talking to each other from across the office. The camera establishes a central focal point and as if a pendulum, it oscillates from side to side, resting on either man in matching compositions. What also stands out visually is the meticulousness of formal design in terms of corresponding cuts, noirish illumination, deep focus compositions, and the movement of characters in and out of frame, all of this lending itself to a notable cinematic choreography beyond just moving the camera.
Caught’s screenplay is by Arthur Laurents, who had the year before written Hitchcock’s Rope and would go on to pen David Lean’s Summertime (1955) and Otto Preminger’s underrated Bonjour Tristesse (1958). As for Ophüls, as good as Caught is, his greatest work still lay ahead: La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) and Lola Montès (1955).
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT
L’eclisse is the third film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s so-called “Trilogy of Alienation,” the preceding works having been L’avventura and La notte. (With justification, some would argue that Red Desert, his next film, truly rounds out what would then be considered a tetralogy). While the three films taken together do explore many of the same themes relating to spiritual emptiness, the disbanding of relationships, and a struggle to communicate in an increasingly modern and alienating world, L’eclisse differs from the two earlier works most notably in its increasingly experimental style and its blatant departures from conventional storytelling and formal design.
A tumultuous relationship begins L’eclisse, as we arrive in medias res, near the end of the rather unpleasantly crumbling relationship between Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) and Vittoria (Monica Vitti). Inside Riccardo’s claustrophobic home, Antonioni packs the frame in a remarkable fashion, with furniture, accessories, and pieces of miscellaneous bric-a-brac invading and protruding through nearly every corner of any given composition. Coupled with a deafening silence (“Many things can be said during silence,” Antonioni once said) and a stifling atmosphere (an oscillating fan stresses the suffocating warmth), this creates an intimately uncomfortable portrait of an affair in ruins, of things clearly having taken a turn for the worse. Vittoria fidgets around anxiously; Riccardo at times just sits and stares. While he is persistent in his attempts at reconciliation, there seems to be no hope. Whatever existed between these two has been sadly severed.
Isolation is a key theme in Antonioni’s work, highlighted frequently through the use of location. Here, after Vittoria leaves Riccardo’s home, she walks along the desolate streets. It’s early and there is barely anyone else around. In this setting, Vittoria’s solitude is underlined by her isolated figure placed in these sterile surroundings. This would stand in contrast to the next key location of the film, one unlike any other previously approached by Antonioni in his films to this point — the Italian stock exchange, where Piero (Alain Delon), who is soon to be Vittoria’s new love, works. This is a hectic, crowded, and noisy location, one of bustling energy that relates to, and feeds off of, the individuals who make up this trade; as they yell and bid and curse, one wonders if they are spurring on this confusion and chaos, or if it the other way around. Either way, this particular locale is quite revealing, not only as far as the characters are concerned, but here we also see Antonioni making a larger commentary on this specific venue as part of Italy as a whole. Men and women shout over each other and violence is primed to erupt at any moment. There is much at stake here, and the attempts to make deals and sell and buy stocks are complicated by all the noise. The earlier silence between Riccardo and Vittoria, which makes their dialogue strained, is paralleled here where the raucousness makes attempts at communication also a struggle. This exchange of currency and property seems utterly uncivilized, yet modern civilization as these people know it is heavily dependent on what goes on in this site. It’s a kind of post-war, consumerist, capitalistic paradox, where big business and stock traders are made to appear unscrupulous and overly aggressive, but are, in many ways, what makes the whole thing move. In a strategy at this point rare in his career, Antonioni is using the market location as instigation for a larger societal critique. When Piero and his associates observe a moment of silence to remember a recently deceased colleague, the anxiety of missing out on potential money earned is excruciating. “One minute here costs billions,” Piero tells Vittoria.
L’eclisse would go on to make use of a location only existing in photographs to further comment on the personal struggles of these characters in their contemporary existence. Following the break up with Riccardo, Vittoria later that evening finds herself in the home of a neighbor, essentially a stranger. There, she marvels at the pictures and artifacts taken from this neighbor’s time spent in Africa. Though never actually in this geographic location, the way the images of the exotic land work on Vittoria’s psyche is nevertheless revealing. She loosens up and becomes uninhibited, going so far as to don blackface, wear a robe, and yell and hop around in the apparent fashion of an “African savage.” What may seem like blatant racism now (and the neighbor seems to view the behavior as disrespectful at the very least), in the film it signals a change in behavior and mentality that Vittoria otherwise never finds the motivation for. The pictures of the African landscapes inform considerably, even if briefly, a retreat from her suffocating, banal, and, to her, difficult way of life. Kenya represents freedom, an escape from modernity, a less difficult place where “things just unfold on their own.”
In another example of an alternate environment playing a part in character development, a major location for Piero also reveals a perhaps latent desire for a return to a simpler existence, here a return to the past. Despite his role in an ever enveloping and evolving contemporary lifestyle, Piero lives in a house populated by antiques. Though he is in no way old fashioned, and actually seems to revel in modern times with the emphasis on prosperity, speed, and progress, these relics surrounding him in this domestic setting hint at a man who once was, or still is, a product of a totally different life than what he is leading.
Taking these two locations together, they both demonstrate why Piero and Vittoria may indeed make a suitable couple — neither are seemingly content with where they are in life or in setting; both maybe even feel more at home, literally and figuratively, in spaces not inundated by the complexities, falsities, and artificialities of a modern reality. If they are a good match, however, then how does one explain the film’s famous final sequence, which amounts to, as Seymour Chatman has described it, “a kind of disestablishing shot”?
Having agreed to meet later one evening, neither character shows, and Antonioni’s camera is left to comb the area and its animate and inanimate occupiers. A sequence lasting nearly seven minutes provides one of Antonioni’s most stunning moments of landscape examination and ambiguous narrative provocation. Abstract compositions of spatial elements — people, buildings, trees, debris, etc. — give a sense of disturbing estrangement. We see people waiting, watching, walking … but waiting for what, watching what, walking where? It’s an aimless, dreamy, even haunting montage of incongruous features. In Elements of Landscape, a short documentary featured on the Criterion Collection disc, critic Adriano Aprà likens L’eclisse to a science fiction film, particularly with its odd, ultramodern architecture, and at one point, Piero states that he feels like he’s in a foreign country. Throughout the entire film, there is a strong feeling of strangeness, but never more so than in this final sequence. The evocative imagery and Giovanni Fusco’s tremendously effective ambient score suggests an alarming finality, but to what? A newspaper headline mentions the nuclear arms race. A possible clue? Antonioni’s compositions in and of themselves are normal enough (stunningly shot though — Aprà calls the filmmaker a “photographer/director”), but taken together like they are here, and juxtaposed in their content and form, the result is quite unsettling.
And what of Piero and Vittoria? Why are they together prior to this, and where are they now? It’s clear when they first meet that there is an attraction (it’s Monica Vitti and Alain Delon, how could there not be attraction?), but their initial attempts at physical affection are awkward at best. This improves some as the film goes on, but there is never a hint of true devotion. Vittoria says at one point she wishes she didn’t love him, but then she wonders if she wishes she loved him more. Their union is half-hearted from the start. Neither is reliant on the other for security, nor are they necessarily looking for commitment. Unexpressed ambivalence is not unusual for Antonioni’s couples, but the way their relationship concludes here, at least as far as what we actually see in the film, is an innovative approach. By agreeing on the meeting time and location, and neither showing, we are at once not surprised (did they really care for each other anyway) and shocked (because we stay in the area, without them, for so long).
There has been debate about what exactly L’eclisse is referring to. There is no actual eclipse in the picture, so like Red Desert, which features nothing close to a desert, to say nothing of a red one, one has to assume that the title is illusory or metaphoric. In this case, it would seem that there is actually an eclipse of sorts, but it’s one of the landscape over the characters. The setting in this film has become so important that it now outweighs our protagonists. From Riccardo’s home to the stock exchange to the austere streets, Antonioni’s characters are never quite in a place where they seem fully at ease. And by the end, why haven’t Piero and Vittoria met? Where could they be? It’s ultimately inconsequential, because the surroundings have taken center stage. In Antonioni’s work to this point, going as far back as his first documentary, People of the Po, settings have told a great deal about their inhabitants. But now, it seems people are losing their relevance. This is just one facet of L’eclisse, a film that truly rewards, if not demands, multiple viewings.
REVIEW from SOUND ON SIGHT