Reel Streaming: Everyday Ennui
Updated: Feb 23, 2021
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 28
By Laurence Lerman
Next time I have to spend a year in isolation, growing restless, I want to do it like a character in an Antonioni film.
Following the recent impeachment trial and its galling, if inevitable, verdict on Saturday, February 13, I deflected the results and my growing frustration with a year of pandemic-styled living by launching a stream of fine films by one of the cinema’s most quietly provocative auteurs, Michelangelo Antonioni. I estimated that a well-spaced trio of them would carry me through to Sunday, Valentine’s Day, and the big, heart-shaped box of chocolates I planned to spring on my wife.
With a body of work that is at once austere, elegant, enigmatic and haunting, Antonioni’s films, particularly the three that established him with an international audience beginning in 1960, perfectly mirror the times in which we currently live—homebound; trying to get work done, but only making it so far; wanting more but accepting less; trying to inject something lively and affirming into the mix, but continuing to stir in our own ennui; and looking for answers, but unsure if we’d even recognize them if they presented themselves.
In Antonioni’s cinema, the modern world and its landscapes, architecture and objects are utilized to convey the distances that exist between people (both physical and psychological), as well as his characters’ state of mind. In telling his tales, many about well-off, well-mannered cosmopolitan Italians, Antonioni—what with his vague narratives, meticulously designed yet sparse compositions and restrained use of dialogue—created a cinematic language that shook up the Italian tradition of neo-realism. It was Antonioni’s kind of deliberate artiness and fuzzy storytelling that fashioned his world of detachment and malaise—not unlike the lives of a good many of us over this past year.
Informally referred to as his “Alienation Trilogy,” Antonioni’s 1960 L’Avventura, 1961’s La Notte and 1962’s L’Eclisse were lauded by the film cognoscenti as works that communicated Italy’s sense of post-war disillusionment and, yeah, alienation. Having seen them for the first time in the late Eighties and not having experienced any of post-war Italy’s alienation from three decades earlier, the films didn’t really click for me on any kind of political or even societal level. It was more about the emotions for me, and the isolation of modern life, even when it comes to lovers’ relationships or the crumbling thereof. But watching such screen presences as Lea Massari and Gabriele Ferzetti in L’Avventura, Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau in La Notte, Alain Delon and Rossana Rory in L’Eclisse, and Antonioni muse Monica Vitti in all three, convinced me, if even for only a couple of hours, that living the life of a bored and beguiled member of the Italian bourgeoisie couldn’t be all that bad. Such striking performers! Such ennui! At one point in La Notte, Moreau is queried about her long evening spent at a jazz club, a publishing event and a lavish party, and her sullen reply is, “One must do something.”
Even better is that all that exquisite suffering generally transpires in silence, perhaps subtly accentuated with some wind or rainfall or maybe some barely there background music. And the occasional kvetching that does pop up comes forth in hushed, Italian tones, so it doesn’t really sound too kvetchy.
Antonioni’s forms and methods aside, there’s also something to be said about his performers’ abilities to communicate their inner lives primarily in expressions and gestures rather than spoken words. To observe Monica Vitti look languorously off to the side when dealing with her sublimated emotions (as she does in all of Antonioni’s films) is one of Italian cinema’s more riveting images, just as it can also be equally seen as frustrating and, again, alienating. But, damn, Ms. Vitti looks great while she’s doing it.
Antonioni followed up his Trilogy with more Vitti, more ennui and more emotionally stunted relationships—this time with an industrial shipyard landscape—in 1964’s Red Desert. Existential ennui has never looked as luxurious as it does in Antonioni’s first color film, one that’s designed so carefully that even the produce on a deserted fruit cart or the exhaust belching from a factory smokestack are colored to the filmmaker’s specifications.
Antonioni’s three subsequent films following Red Desert were English language productions that were more thematically mindful then heartfelt: the nature of reality seen through a photographer’s lens in the international sensation Blow-Up (1966), the shallowness of the American counterculture explored in the disastrously received Zabriskie Point (1970) and the concept of self in the face of taking on another’s identity, which powers the intriguing Jack Nicholson-starrer The Passenger (1975). All three of Antonioni’s English-language offerings are very watchable, but none pack the malaise-embracing wallop of his Alienation Trilogy, in which we’re not just questioning if the beautiful people’s sour romances are going to survive, but if their participants even care. That feeling carries over to Red Desert, but for me, the silvery lack of color of the Trilogy’s films make for a more quietly stylized kind of listlessness. And Delon, Mastroianni and Ferzetti’s dark, well-tailored Italian suits look awesome in black-and-white.
After watching L’Eclisse as Saturday crept past the midnight hour, I drifted off to sleep. When I woke on Valentine’s Day morning, I knew I had left the Trilogy’s lethargic groove behind me. Antonioni ennui as a signpost of a year of quarantined living is good for a couple of nights, but on a Valentine’s Day morning, it’s all about the joys of Godiva.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.