List Film

Seminal Souls - Antonioni and Bergman in the 21st century

A look at the significance of Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman

comments
Seminal Souls - Antonioni and Bergman in the 21st century

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.

Persona - trailer

Criterion Trailer 98: L'Avventura

Persona

  • 1966
  • Sweden
  • 81 min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
  • Written by: Ingmar Bergman
  • Cast: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann

'Persona' explores the relationship between two women, an actress (Ullmann) suffering a breakdown and the nurse (Andersson) who oversees her recuperation in a country cottage. The actress, who dried up in the middle of a performance, doesn't speak, while the nurse talks at length to her mute patient about various petty…

The Seventh Seal

  • 4 stars
  • 1957
  • Sweden
  • 90 min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
  • Written by: Ingmar Bergman
  • Cast: Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Inga Landgré, Åke Fridell

Bergman's hugely iconic and sustained meditation on the inevitability of death and suffering in the Middle Ages makes a more than welcome return to the big screen courtesy of this lovely new print.

Wild Strawberries

  • 1957
  • Sweden
  • 94 min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
  • Written by: Ingmar Bergman
  • Cast: Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand

Following an appalling, symbol-laden nightmare, an elderly professor (Sjöström) finds himself reliving his life as he travels to an academic awards ceremony. Bergman's customary bleakness is shelved, with enjoyable results, while Sjöström's performance glows with feeling and intelligence.

L'Avventura

  • 4 stars
  • 1960
  • Italy
  • 145 min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni
  • Written by: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra
  • Cast: Gabriele Ferzetti, Monica Vitti, Lea Massari

Slow and detached from plot devices, Antonioni focuses more on the developing relationship of a couple searching the Sicilian landscape for a missing friend than on the how and why of the disappearance itself. A prime example of European chic, memorably photographed.

Fanny and Alexander

  • 1982
  • Sweden
  • 189 min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
  • Written by: Ingmar Bergman
  • Cast: Pernilla Allwin, Bertil Guve, Börje Ahlstedt, Anna Bergman, Gunn Wållgren, Erland Josephson, Mats Bergman, Jarl Kulle

Many of those familiar Bergman themes - religious doubt, a puritanical father, the materialisation of God - are present in this turn-of-the-century family saga, which was 300 minutes long in its original TV format. The harsher semi-autobiographical references are softened by the fact that it captures some of the childish…

The Night (La Notte)

  • 4 stars
  • 1961
  • Italy
  • 121 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni
  • Written by: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano, Tonino Guerra
  • Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Monica Vitti, Bernhard Wicki

Falling between 'L'Avventura' and 'L'Eclisse', Antonioni's depiction of a marriage during its dying breath is another perfectly executed study of alienation. The performances are wonderful and the sterile atmosphere evocatively is captured against the blank facades of Milan's suburbs.

The Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso)

  • 4 stars
  • 1964
  • Italy
  • 116 min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Michaelangelo Antonioni
  • Cast: Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, Carlo Chionetti
  • UK release: 27 July 2012

A woman who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown begins a tentative affair with a friend of her husband. Antonioni uses muted colours and an industrial landscape to magnificent effect, as Vitti's fraught heroine becomes dislocated and menaced by her surroundings. A masterpiece of cinema as art.

L'Eclisse (The Eclipse)

  • 5 stars
  • 1962
  • Italy/France
  • 125 min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni
  • Written by: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio Bartolini, Ottiero Ottieri
  • Cast: Alain Delon, Monica Vitti, Francisco Rabal, Louis Seigner

Vittoria (Vitti) is a translator who becomes involved with caddish and restless stockbroker Piero (Delon) – but can she find lasting happiness? Crisp digital restoration of Antonioni's 1962 masterpiece, with memorable interludes, vivid performances and a deeply unsettling ending. Pertinent, intriguing and seductive.

Blow Up

  • 4 stars
  • 1966
  • UK/Italy
  • 111 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni
  • Written by: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Edward Bond, Julio Cortázar (short story)
  • Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles

Fashion photographer Thomas (Hemmings) becomes bored with his life of 60s excess. Frustrated with the superficial nature of the fashion world, he takes clandestine photographs of the meeting between two strangers in a park – a woman (Redgrave) and an older man. Thomas initially thinks he has merely snapped evidence of an…

The Passenger (Professione: Reporter)

  • 5 stars
  • 1975
  • France/Italy/US/Spain
  • 126 min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni
  • Cast: Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Jenny Runacre, Ian Hendry, Steven Berkoff

A magnificent piece of 70s cinema, re-issued in newly restored director's cut. Nicholson is on impressive form as a burnt-out TV reporter, who exchanges identities in Chad with a gun-running dead acquaintance. But the film is much more than mere thriller, with magnificent cinematography and a virtuoso seven minute single…

Eros

  • 3 stars
  • 2006
  • US/China/Italy
  • 106 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh, Michelangelo Antonioni
  • Cast: Christopher Buchholz, Li Gong, Alan Arkin, Robert Downey Jr

Three internationally feted directors each contribute to a trilogy of half hour films about erotic love: 'The Hand', 'Equilibrium' and 'The Dangerous Thread of Things'. An enticing prospect, but this portmanteau project veers from the sublime to the ridiculous, with Antonioni's effort an excruciating embarrassment.

Symposium: Antonioni and Bergman in the 21st Century

A group of scholars, biographers and film archivists examine the impact of Antonioni and Bergman's films. Presentations and discussions will examine the themes explored by these two enormously influential directors.

Elsewhere on the web

Comments

Post a comment