1 FEBRUARY 1963, Page 18


Antonioni's Uncertain Smile

By ISABEL QUIGLY The Eclipse. (Cameo-Poly; `A' certificate.) • Wrrn a cerebral director, such

• a as Bergman, it is perfectly pos- sible to take any series of

• images he uses and say: this equals that; or, this image stands for, symbolises, arouses, that thing, feeling, atmosphere, judgment. The image has a direct and generally particular meaning; it interprets visually what the director is trying to say. Of course this is obvious, the easy, age-old cinematic language, not neces- sarily cerebral at all, since light-shirt meant a good cowboy and dark-shirt a bad; and Bergman goes far beyond the direct translation of abstract into image (e.g., toad=menace). But you can say of Bergman, as of almost all film-makers, to some degree or other, that he speaks in similes, that his visual world is a series of comparisons rather than visual ideas.

What makes Michelangelo Antonioni discon- certing, particularly at first sight, is that he speaks not in simile, but in metaphor. He doesn't sug- gest that scene, fact or object, movement, light or pattern, is like this or that: he isn't really inter- ested in direct comparison at all, his way is both more general and more suggestive. What his images suggest comes cumulatively, by seeing them in context, in movement, even in retrospect; and so more than most he is a film-maker that grows on you—the more familiar his language the richer it becomes, the more emotive but the less directly translatable, since you learn to stop trying to translate. He has to be taken on his own terms, at his own speed, and (as it were) at his particular degree of denseness, even opacity. It is no more use expecting plain statements of fact or opinion than it was asking 'What happened to Anna?' at the end of L'Avventura or 'What were they talking about during that rainy car ride?' in La Notte. And in his new film, The Eclipse, he makes fewer concessions than ever.

It is not, although it carries Antonioni's visual language a step further, a surprise. Had it burst upon us out of the blue, without its predecessors L'Avventura and La Notte, heaven knows what we might have made of it. But by now the slow, atmospheric language of L'Avventura and the deliberate longueurs and apparent excrescences of La Notte are familiar enough to make The Eclipse seem quite unradical, indeed a satisfac- tory, almost predictable development from its predecessors. And it arrives, of course, already festooned with comment and exclamation and with one sentence' of the dialogue already much quoted: 'You don't have, to know each other, to love,' the girl says. 'You don't even have to love.'

Like that of its predecessors, the plot, in the old sense of external action, is negligible: at least it hardly bears putting down, since nearly every- thing that happens happens inside people, and the favourite comment on it (Antonioni's too, one suspects) is, 'I don't know,' a sentence the girl uses so often that her lover finally bursts out in exasperation. She doesn't know, with her first lover, whether she loves him or doesn't, when she stopped loving him (if she did), or why; with her second she doesn't, again, know whether, how or why she loves him (if, again, she does); and her best comment on all of them seems to be: 'I wish I didn't love you, or else that I loved you much better.'

This lack of explicit comment, this failure to make statements and even more to draw con- clusions, the whole air of flux and fluidity, with- drawal, reticence, and even remoteness (perfectly embodied in Monica Vitti, a one-part and a no-part actress, a kind of de-personalised person, rather than an actress at all), goes oddly with the extreme assurance, care and deliberation of Antonioni's style. He is sometimes accused of `posing' the whole world, but to me there seems all the difference between his way of making objects and places eloquent and a self-conscious prettification or tidying-up or ordering of them, between the extraordinary degree of atmospheric truth he finds in (say) furniture and possessions, the way a house is lit, the memories outgrown things arouse, and a deliberate chase after atmosphere, nostalgia and the rest. Because a still from a film of Antonioni's so often looks like an illustration for Domus one tends to forget that his imagery is in fact eclectic, that he is as much at home in the waste land that so often surrounds Italian cities as he is in the glass skyscrapers that seem more characteristic of him (just as one tends to forget that in his earlier films his people were quite unlike these, his situations were taken from all over the place). What he seems incapable of is the visual cliché, being (I would say) tempera- mentally and not laboriously unable to show things as we have already seen them. Above all he has (to put it at its lowest) an individual eye.

In The Eclipse he has taken some very simple facts and through them given us another view of human loneliness and lack of communication. A girl breaks off a long-standing love affair, meets another man, starts another affair. We know enough of the man to suppose this will be equally disastrous; and, in a sense, we know enough of her. The man (well played by Alain Delon. who has the right looks to make his attractiveness just credible) is about as nasty a film hero as we have seen for years, and Vittoria, the girl. is obviously a charmer; but it is not his nastiness or her niceness that makes them incompatible, it is (one feels) their basic human isolation, the impossibility of two people ever really coming together or of anyone understanding what the other says. 'I feel I'm abroad,' says Piero, after they have first made love; `So do 1. with you,' says Vittoria. Everyone, in fact, is (and what's worse, remains) continents 'away and talking another language. In spite of this Antonioni manages, with absolutely nothing in the way of `boldness,' to suggest in his love scenes a degree of closeness, excitement and pleasure that is rare, these keyhole days.

Monica Vitti, not so much the symbol as the person, the exact and unmistakable image, of this spiritual isolation in a sensual enough world, is not required to act so much as to move, to look, to be, to fill spaces. She, admittedly, is 'posed' by Antonioni, in every mood and light, against every sort of texture and landscape, at every angle. In a builder's yard she towers like a graceful Gulliver over skyscrapers (the proportions are exactly right) of bricks and tiles, a miniature city; at the stock exchange she is snowy, with revulsion and remoteness, in a raging inferno; at a friend's flat she paints herself black. She is every mood and no fixed character, a powerful but indescribable presence, with a. face in its way as beautiful and as dateless as Garbo's. The word 'beautiful' is one I have avoided up till now, because it is too tempting and too general. Like the word 'love' applied in any Antonioni relation- ship, the word 'beauty' means too many things to be applied much in his films. Besides, it is always an incidental, almost fortuitous element there: always Antonioni is after other things.