Seminal Souls - Antonioni and Bergman in the 21st century
A look at the significance of Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman
Dying within twenty four hours of each other, the demise of two great filmmakers in 2007 was clearly a loss, but though Ingmar Bergman came out of retirement to make Saraband in 2002, and Antonioni made one feature, Beyond the Clouds (and a later short, Eros, part of The Dangerous Thread of Things), after a stroke left him severely debilitated in the eighties, these were very much filmmakers from a previous era. This isn’t to damn the directors with faint praise; more to acknowledge the highest of accolades through their significance. Both filmmakers may be dead, but their importance has all the hope of a second coming. We needn’t believe in reincarnation (let alone resurrection) to wonder in which ways influential filmmakers come back in different forms.
Bergman was born in Uppsala, Sweden in 1918, and because he was a filmmaker always more concerned with the claustrophobic hell of other people over the quizzical relationship with cityscapes and deserts that so fascinated Antonioni, he remains the most homebody of directors. There was of course an unsusbtantiated tax scandal in the seventies that left him in exile for several years in Germany, but Bergman’s work is closely associated with Nordic angst, the landscapes pertinent in themselves, but especially useful in reflecting the souls of characters isolated from others. This is a bit of a paradox in Bergman’s work, in Winter Light, Persona, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage and others: there is both the claustrophobia of other people, whilst at the same time the isolation of the self. Sometimes Bergman’s characters are trying to get away from it all, but the phrase hardly does justice to the crisis undergone. Whether it is Max von Sydow’s characters in The Hour of the Wolf and The Passion of Anna, or Liv Ullmann’s Elisabet in Persona, one is often terrible company and two a nightmarish crowd. Add a couple of other people to the mix (as in The Passion of Anna) and expect existential catastrophe. Hell truly is other people, as Sartre would say.
Critics have often noted the importance of the close-up in Bergman’s work, and if it is his trademark shot it lies in the need to muse over what is going on in people’s minds and the vitriol that is capable of coming out of people’s mouths. Bergman is a great visual director (with the aid chiefly of two cinematographers, Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist), but he also wrote his own scripts, and the dialogue buzz-saws its way through the characters’ self-denials and pretentions. Whether it is the mother/daughter spats in Autumn Sonata, or the warring couple at the beginning of Scenes from a Marriage, Bergman shares with numerous American playwrights (including Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee) the ability to strip bare a character whilst leaving them fully clothed. Though Bergman might be mockingly remembered for the weight of his symbolism in The Seventh Seal, the autumnal register of Wild Strawberries and the reveries of remembering things past in Fanny and Alexander (all of course major works), it is to the chamber piece in its various manifestations that Bergman ought to be remembered, and where his subtle influence should lie.
But where does this influence manifest itself? That is perhaps for another piece, but here are a few suggestions. The fine Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan in Uzak, Climates and Three Monkeys has absorbed an aspect of the hell of other people, while Lucrecia Martel has explored the bad faith of the Argentinean bourgeoisie with some of the caustic acumen of the Swedish master. Lars von Trier might have acknowledged Tarkovsky's importance on Antichrist, but the dynamics are Bergmanesque, with the emotional torture becoming literal.
Another area of influence is in the form. The notion of the close-up as a shot of dissolution was credited to Bergman by philosopher Gilles Deleuze. He mentions that when Bergman showed a cut of Persona to Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson they couldn’t distinguish each from the other. This dissolution has become central to much that has been called the tactile gaze, where in work by anyone from Claire Denis to Philippe Grandrieux, from Andrea Arnold to Lynne Ramsay, filmmakers have given vital energy to a close-up that can lend itself so often to face to face convention.
Antonioni’s influence has been more about distance, and critic Pascal Bonitzer once noted that 'since L’Avventura, Antonioni’s great project has been the empty shot, the de-peopled shot.' Antonioni was born in Ferrara in 1912, a gifted tennis player who was also a skilled film critic, and debuted in 1950 with Chronicle of a Love, but it was a decade later with L’Avventura that he became an unequivocally important director, and what David Bordwell has called 'a strong precursor.' He was interested in wondering what moods, states, tensions, reflections sat in the body without finding ready expression, and needed to find a correlative for exploring character from the outside, just as Bergman seemed to be exploring from the inside. Whether it happens to be Jeanne Moreau’s character in La Notte, Monica Vitti’s in L’Avventura, Red Desert or The Eclipse, and Jack Nicholson’s in The Passenger, Antonioni was always looking not for symbolic meaning, but nevertheless visual correlatives to search out the complexity of behaviour. Antonioni’s characters are usually in crisis, even if they appear assured and confident. In Blow-Up, David Hemmings’ photographer becomes a decidedly doubting Thomas when he tries to make sense of an incident he captures on film.
Antonioni’s influence has been monumental, and probably more direct than Bergman’s. There is a shot in Mexican Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven round a courtyard that can’t help but bring to mind the penultimate shot of The Passenger. Elia Sulieman’s partial framings in Divine Intervention and The Time that Remains, and Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter owe much to the director’s capacity to speak volumes through the body and remain silent in speech. Equally anyone watching Argentine Lisandro Alonso’s films will note the Antonioni influence. Gus van Sant may have gone through Bela Tarr to make Elephant, but behind Tarr we will find much Antonioni.
The directors might have died, but the soul of the filmmakers remain, evident in the questions directors are asking and finding solutions for with the aid of these two undeniably seminal filmmakers. Mark Cousins, writing after their death, acknowledged they 'were profoundly different artists', but the fundamental similarity resides in cinematic exploration that will be of influence for many decades to come.
Antonioni and Bergman in the 21st Century continues at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh until Wed 9 May.