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The Boston Phoenix Wings of Desire

Antonioni's "Clouds" takes flight.

By Jeffrey Gantz

APRIL 20, 1998:  We're all lost in the clouds -- and our true home, Michelangelo Antonioni keeps reminding us, is beyond them. Antonioni has never been an ordinary director, even by the standards of his '60s European peers: Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, Buñuel, Bergman. His real peers aren't cimematic but literary: Calvino, Cortázar, Borges. And his world, like theirs, is, paradoxically, beyond words, a world where humans count for no more than subatomic quarks or spiral galaxies. At least three of his films -- L'avventura (1960), Red Desert (1964), and The Passenger (1975) -- are cinematic masterpieces, movies that make you rethink your existence. Beyond the Clouds, which is drawn from the sketches Antonioni set out in his book That Bowling Alley on the Tiber and realized with the help of Dutch director Wim Wenders (Antonioni suffered a stroke in 1985), doesn't quite reach that level, but it still blows away 99 percent of what's on screen these days. It's getting a full week at the Coolidge, so you've no excuse for not giving your life a chance to change. Forget Must See TV -- this is Must See Filmmaking.

Antonioni grew up in Ferrara, in the Po Valley, where the mists cut you off from your fellow humans, your natural surroundings, everything but yourself. The narrator of That Bowling Alley on the Tiber seems more ghost than man (shades of Wenders's Wings of Desire): everything he writes about is a figment of his imagination, an affirmation of himself as moviemaking God. Beyond the Clouds develops five nuclei from Bowling Alley. "Story of a Love Affair That Never Existed" is a Ferrara tale of a relationship (Inès Sastre, Kim Rossi-Stuart) that goes on for years without ever being consummated. In "The Girl, the Crime . . . ," the narrator (John Malkovich) finds himself drawn to a Portofino shopgirl (Sophie Marceau) who stabbed her father 12 times. The third story combines "The Wheel," about a man (Peter Waller) caught between his wife (Fanny Ardant) and his mistress (Chiara Caselli), with Bowling's final tidbit, "Don't Try To Find Me." It all ends where it began, a relationship that can't be consummated, in "This Body of Filth" (a phrase from the Life of St. Theresa), where a footloose young man (Vincent Perez) falls for a young lady (Irène Jacob) who's about to enter a convent.

Antonioni is always trying to move beyond the female body -- perhaps that's why he puts four nude ones on screen here. "Story of a Love Affair That Never Existed" is the key piece: Carmen expects Silvano to come to her hotel room, but he, waiting for the right moment, falls asleep. Years later, after they run into each other at the cinema, he can barely touch her naked body: it's too perfect to caress, to experience, so he leaves her. He wants Dante's Paradise; real life is too much like Dante's dark wood.

It doesn't all work on screen. John Malkovich is too authoritarian to be ideal as the filmmaker/narrator; he makes Antonioni's probings (which can hardly exist outside the original Italian, though the late William Arrowsmith gave them life in his magnificent translation) sound like pronouncements. The nudity doesn't seem right either: Antonioni was always able to suggest there's more to life than sex without needing to show us the sex. Having the narrator say that Silvano refused to possess Carmen out of stupid pride trivializes the first episode, as does playing Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You" while Malkovich and Marceau make love in the second and ending that sequence with a gratuitous reference to James Joyce's "The Dead."

But much of Beyond the Clouds reminds us that life is indeed a mist out of which we rarely emerge. At the beginning of the second episode, when Malkovich finds himself following Marceau through narrow, curving allées, Antonioni keeps hesitating, stopping to look at the foliage or listen to the birds. In the third episode, when Fanny Ardant is trying to rent Jean Reno's apartment, there's a moment, shot from overhead, when Reno vacates a leather easychair and the camera lingers on the chair as more interesting than Reno's character. The last segment, about a woman who wants to escape not just her body but her mundane thoughts, is pure Antonioni.

I keep going back to the beginning of Beyond the Clouds, where Carmen is bicycling along a loggia when Silvano gets out of his car to ask directions. Once they've left the frame, there's only that view from the loggia: road, street lamps, fence, grass, the cawing of crows, all colored by the encounter we've just witnessed. For a moment I wondered whether Antonioni would be able to leave it -- and whether I wanted him to.


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