It’s been fifty-five years since Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni premiered L’Avventura at the Cannes Film Festival, causing a major public and critical uproar while eventually walking away with the Jury Prize. (The Palme d’Or went to Frederico Fellini for La Dolce Vita – talk about a good year for Italian cinema.)
L’Avventura was Antonioni’s fifth feature, directed when he was already 48-years-old. But it felt like something completely new: Ostensibly a missing persons drama about a woman (Lea Massari) who disappears during a boating trip, leaving her best friend (Monica Vitti) and lover (Gabriele Ferzetti) to search for her, in reality it was a 2 ½ hour existential bombshell where the searchers fall in and out of love amid a backdrop of angst, ennui and breathtaking Mediterranean vistas.
What caused such a stir of Cannes was the sheer audacity of the exercise. Here was a film where nothing seemed to happen, and where neither the director nor the characters seemed to care – which of course was the point. In L’Avventura, Antonioni portrayed an Italian upper class caught in the emotional void of its own pleasure-seeking ways, abandoning all convictions on a voyage to the brink of emptiness. With its near-silent sequences and shots of lovers going nowhere, the movie invited the audience to stare into the abyss. And what a beautiful abyss it was.
Along with Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, which premiered in Berlin a few months earlier, L’Avventura would have a profound effect on modern cinema, changing the way many directors – both of the art-house and Hollywood variety – practiced the medium. And while the jump cuts and collage effects of Godard would find their way into avant-garde films, television commercials and music videos on MTV, Antonioni’s exquisite images of urban desolation were copied time and again in the fashion and advertising worlds, while also influencing the “slow cinema” works of Cannes laureates like Andrei Tarkvosky, Abbas Kiarostami and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
In the new, rather curiously titled Cinematheque Francaise exhibition “Antonioni: The Origins of Pop,” the director’s work is given a thorough examination through clips, annotated screenplays, archive materials, set photographs and original paintings made during the latter half of his career. Like many such cinema exhibits, the show ultimately makes you want to watch the movies themselves rather than stare at a bunch of excerpts and posters. But seeing Antonioni’s oeuvre amassed into a single space reminds one what a monumental artist he was, following up L’Avventura with the masterpieces La Notte and L’Eclisse in what was known as the “trilogy on modernity,” and then making four more epic art-house films – all of them shot in stunning color – with Red Desert, Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point and the Jack Nicholson-starrer The Passenger.
A large section of the exhibit is dedicated to 1966’s Blow-Up, for which Antonioni conducted months of research in London, basing the lead character on the ultra-hip fashion photographer David Bailey. One typewritten paper features questions he asked Bailey and other shutterbugs, trying to understand the link between sexuality and marketing – an idea conveyed in the legendary orgasmic photo session that David Hemmings performs in the movie. The combination of documentary material and visual references reveal how Antonioni often approached his projects like a sociologist (his first movies were short documentaries made around his native Po Valley), but filmed them like a painter, as evidenced by works from Italian artists Giorgio de Chirico, Alberto Burri and Giorgio Morandi included in the show.
While Blow-Up and the 1970 American counterculture saga, Zabriskie Point, were certainly two of the most zeitgeisty films of their time, it’s otherwise hard to grasp where the “pop” part of Antonioni’s work comes into the picture. If anything, the latter part of the exhibition underscores how his movies inspired a generation of high-art photographers like Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman, and contemporary artists like Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, while a section filled with the director’s own “Enchanted Mountains” paintings show him moving toward pictorial abstraction in his final years. (It could be argued that Antonioni’s “actionless” dramas influenced the films of pop artist Andy Warhol, though no such mention is made in the show.)
Regardless of whether modern pop culture originated with Antonioni, it’s certain that film culture owes a major debt to him, and every year there are several art-house heavyweights – including 2014 Palme d’Or winner, Winter Sleep – that wouldn’t exist without the classics he made in the 60’s and 70’s. Back then, his movies were greeted with a certain level of hostility, as if the world wasn’t ready for them. Nowadays they have joined the cinematic lexicon, and films can be deemed “Antonionian” just as others are considered Hitchcockian. In that sense, he’s popular enough.
Curator: Dominique Paini
Runs: April 9, 2014 – July 19, 2015
Location: Cinematheque Francaise (Paris, France)
Location: Cinematheque Francaise, 51, rue de Bercy, 75012 Paris, France