Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Though the mysterious quest has formed the basis of many films in the corpus of Michelangelo Antonioni, there's very little talk of him as a fantasy filmmaker. Given the weightiness of his usual themes (alienation in the modern world, the ultimate incompatibility of the sexes) and the seriousness with which they're regarded, one's inclination is to resist putting Antonioni in the same camp as, say, George Lucas.

Your proprietor more often than not takes a literal approach to interpreting Antonioni's films, engaging the images on their own without outside cross-references. And though the more literary-minded of Antonioni's fans may balk, I've found a great deal of meaning and resonance in the man's work through this approach, and the interpretations of the films, or at least where I go naturally within them, always wind up in the realm of the fantastic. The spray-painted sands that surround Monica Vitti in Red Desert suggest an alien landscape to me. The otherworldliness of Irene Jacob (suggested throughout the final story in Beyond the Clouds) is made literal by a throwaway gag in which an oncoming mugger immediately repents and leaves her in peace. And though many see the explosive finale of Zabriskie Point as a manifestation of Daria's emerging revolutionary conscience, I see it as an apocalypse wrought Carrie-style on the straight world that killed her lover; indeed, the final title card suggests not the beginning of her revolutionary struggle but a definite and all-encompassing "END" to everything.

I don't intend to make the case that Antonioni is a great unsung genre filmmaker, but consideration of the fantastic often opens up or intensifies his themes. With this in mind, I recently re-watched Identification of a Woman and was struck to find it as upfront in its use of fantastic elements and themes as I remembered, both in overt uses of special effects and in more subtle fantasy imagery.

The film was made in 1982, a year in which Antonioni's countrymen were also pursuing fantastic agendas. Lucio Fulci had just finished an impressive run of fantastic, dreamlike, and very violent horror films (including City of the Living Dead and House By The Cemetery). More to the point, Dario Argento released his Tenebrae that year, his return to the giallo genre. Though IOAW lacks the overt and colorful violence of these filmmakers, it is no less dreamlike or surreal than their work. The protagonists of the films of all three directors fall into their own worlds, often of madness. Though Antonioni doesn't eschew classical settings in his film the way Argento did in Tenebrae (opting for shooting at modern locations for a science-fiction feel), he is as adept as any genre filmmaker in warping his locations to suggest the darker psyche of his protagonist.

From the beginning of IOAW, Antonioni's protagonist (the delightfully working-class filmmaker Niccolo Farra [Tomas Milian]) is beset by a number of mysterious external forces. His pursuit of the perfect female lead for his current project is mirrored by his amorous pursuit of a lover, and the high society femme Maria (Daniela Silvero) seems to fit the bill. But Niccolo finds himself pursued and threatened by shadowy men who want him to sever ties with Maria.

Just as worrying: what the fuck is that...thing growing on the tree outside his flat?

Niccolo's frustrated search for these mysterious agents (and their escalating actions against him) parallel the growing mystery of Maria (Mavi) herself. The class difference between them is the clearest difficulty, but Niccolo is increasingly restless as Mavi becomes more and more unknowable. Nearly halfway into the film, the two enter a fog-shrouded labyrinth straight out of Fulci:

Spies lurk in this dreamy twilight zone:

And it finally proves too much for Maria, whose resulting breakdown could have been edited in from a contemporaneous giallo:

She leaves the car but shortly returns, weirdly shaken by the ordeal. Possibly not the same person. A pod person (as suggested by the growth on the tree)? Perhaps. But she soon disappears from Niccolo's life, leaving a gap in his life and his film that he continues to try unsuccessfully to cast.

And though shadowy presences lurk on the periphery of his senses (flowers are mockingly sent continuously to his apartment), more positive forces enter his life as well. Specifically his young nephew, who brings a stamp to his uncle's attention with a challenge.

And the soundtrack shifts from John Foxx's original, deliberately flat and ambient electronic music, to the burbling, mysterious, and alive "Sons of Pioneers" by Japan. The insistent pulse of Japan's rhythm section (fretless bassist Mick Karn and drummer Steve Jansen) pushes Niccolo into new territory, and he chases the idea from the comfort of his home office.

And in that telescope he sees one of the most otherworldly and fantastic images in Antonioni's oeuvre:

Life continues. Though Niccolo's work on the film continues to hinge on the ever-elusive lead, a bevy of would-be lovers enter his orbit. The stand-out is Ida (Christine Boisson), an actress (not right for the part it seems, but a fellow creative/kindred spirit). And though Ida's centered enough to help Niccolo track down the people involved in the conspiracy around Maria, she ultimately possesses a secret that drives a wedge between her and Niccolo. As their affair nears its undoing, they're increasingly separated by windows, frames, and (in a solidly fantasistic touch) mirrors:

Niccolo is alone in his own world. He's free of the conspiracy, and of any ties to anyone, but his burning questions, and his loneliness, still linger. Compelled to enter his office/studio, he reboards the vehicle offered by his festering sci-fi opus, and, looking straight into the sun, he lights out for new territories:

Though Star Wars was firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by now, Niccolo's sci-fi film is as removed from it as Antonioni's. Like other filmmakers before him, he embraces an out-and-out genre film to directly address the questions that plague him most. Though looking directly into the sun, it's as unknowable as Navi. But Niccolo's ship orbits it ever closer. Offscreen his nephew asks, "Why towards the sun?"

"To study it. If man one day can discover how matter is distributed in the sun and its dynamics, he'll know how the universe is made, and the cause of many things."

"And then?" the nephew asks.

There is no answer. Once again Niccolo is consumed by his quest, and the ship vanishes in the sun.


  1. Marvelous post! Antonioni sci-fi? How is that I've never seen this? You've made it sound like yet another Antonioni masterpiece. Love the linking with Fulci.

    Some nice insights on his other films too. I see BOTH of those endings coexisting in the slo-mo explosion at the end of ZABRISKIE. It's an internalization of the devastation she feels, and yet a representation of what she wants to deliver to the "straight world." Nicely done!

  2. Thanks for reading - this post specifically (and meditations on Antonioni as unheralded fantasist in general) had been lurking for a while. There's much more to the film than this piece would suggest, and many things irrelevant to my thesis, so it's definitely worth seeing. The film, incidentally, was made after THE MYSTERY OF OBERWALD, Antonioni's most overtly fantasist picture.

    Shortly after its prize-winning run at Cannes, it got a shitty, shitty review by Vincent Canby in the New York Times which made its US distributor flee in horror. So it didn't get seen here until 1996. Rosenbaum talks about it (and Antonioni's other work) here.

    My DVD's a European import (with some sadly lacking subtitles) but I'd love to show it to you sometime.