For many cinephiles, Michelangelo Antonioni is one of the directors most identified with the concept of ‘European art cinema’, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s. His career started early as a writer and then director in the 1940s when neo-realism was beginning to develop. In the 1970s he worked outside Italy for Hollywood (Zabriskie Point 1970) and for European producers, but with American and British players in The Passenger (1975). Antonioni had a 60 year filmmaking career but it is perhaps the three films he made between 1960 and 1962 which are most responsible for the art cinema designation. L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse are films which share the same director, writers and various crew members. They each star leading Italian and French actors and Monica Vitti appears in all three films. She also leads in Red Desert in 1964 – a film sometimes bracketed with the other three films, although it is in colour. The key terms to describe these narratives seem to be alienation, isolation and existentialism. Put crudely, in La notte critics see the decay and possible collapse of the marriage of two intelligent (and wealthy) people reflected in some way by their responses to both the kind of society they encounter (and are part of) and the buildings and technologies of the new world of affluence for the haute-bourgeoisie whose interest is aroused by a writer’s celebrity. I’m not saying this is a ‘wrong’ reading, but there seem to be several other ways of thinking about the film. On the Wikipedia page for the film, the following statement appears in the introduction:
The film continues Antonioni’s tradition of abandoning traditional storytelling in favour of visual composition.
This is a helpful observation but it also potentially misleads. Antonioni doesn’t abandon traditional storytelling, but he does place more emphasis on cinema’s unique capacity to tell stories through setting, camerawork, editing, music etc. as well as dialogue. He doesn’t deploy the conventions of Hollywood storytelling in terms of pacing or the linear ‘drive’ of the narrative. But he does utilises stars. The elements of a story are all there but they are presented in a way that some audiences will perhaps find off-putting and unsatisfactory – or the story itself will not be of enough interest. A film is an art object, preserved like amber, and must be seen in its context of production and reception. Many of us will read it differently today than audiences did in 1961. But others will attempt to read it as timeless because ‘great art’ doesn’t age. These differences are interesting for me.
Time and space
The setting of La notte is contemporary Milan. The narrative involves a married couple, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) who first visit a dying friend in a swish modern private clinic – more like an up-market hotel or apartment block. They leave and drive through the streets, arriving at a party being given in Giovanni’s honour on the occasion of the publication of his latest novel. A greeting suggests it is still morning when they arrive. Giovanni is the centre of attention. Lidia becomes bored and wanders out to walk among the lunchtime crowds. It’s a warm summer’s day and she enjoys observing people. Eventually she hires a cab and ends up in the district where she lived with Giovanni when they first married. It is a more open area, perhaps on the edge of the city? Giovanni goes back to their apartment in the centre and falls asleep on his day bed. Later, Lidia rings him and he collects her. She wants to go out in the evening and they visit a night club and then move onto a party outside the city given by a very wealthy industrialist. Giovanni is again the centre of attention and Lidia feels marginalised. Later at the party, Giovanni spends time with the industrialist’s daughter Valentina (Monica Vitti) and Lidia leaves for a short time with a man from the party. At dawn Giovanni and Lidia are together again and they wander out onto the private golf course on the estate. They admit to each other that their marriage is facing a crisis. The camera moves away from them and the film ends.
It occurs to me that Antonioni’s choice of locations in his three films is very similar to De Sica’s choices for Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Italy-France 1963). I suspect it was a popular headline around that time. De Sica told three stories featuring the same actors playing a couple in Naples (‘Yesterday’), Rome (‘Today’) and Milan (‘Tomorrow’). Marcello Mastroianni is the man and Sophia Loren is the woman. Antonioni chooses Sicily for L’avventura, Rome for L’eclisse and Milan for La notte. My impression is that at this time, the differences between Italian regions and especially between ‘South’ and ‘North’ were very great. They still are to some extent I think. One of the best indications of this is developed by Visconti in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a film also set in Milan and a film which I thought about while watching La notte, especially when Lidia is on her own on the outskirts of the city. I also thought about Fellini’s La dolce vita (Italy 1960). OK that is set in Rome but it’s the helicopter that is the link. It appears a couple of times in La notte with that angry buzzing sound somehow proclaiming the modern city. It also suggests on the one hand surveillance of the population if you are working class or the freedom to take to the air if you have the money. Thinking about that helicopter now – i.e. as it flies over my house – I’m aware that, apart from its use for real emergencies, it also signifies a polluting object, something that would not occur to anyone in 1961.
Time – story time, screen time, narrative time – is important in La notte and as part of Antonioni’s approach to his storytelling. The narrative time, the time covered by the events on screen, appears to be about twenty hours, from 10.00 am through to around 6.00 am the following morning. The actual screen time is just over two hours but the full story time is several years. How long have Giovanni and Lidia known Tommaso, the man dying in the clinic? Was he Giovanni’s friend first or Lidia’s? Given the books displayed at the publisher’s launch party, Giovanni has been writing for a long time. But the sequence in which Lidia returns to the area in which they first lived suggests that although she comes from a wealthy family, the young couple might have had a relatively ‘normal’ early married life during the 1950s when Milan was growing as an industrial centre. These ‘inferred’ events give a rather different perspective on the behaviour of Giovanni and Lidia at the industrialist’s party.
In an essay on the Criterion website, Richard Brody discusses Antonioni’s focus on architecture and his “irrepressible delight in the oppressive and desolate forms of technological modernity”. It is certainly true that as I watched the film, I was most conscious of cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo’s framings and compositions Milan’s architecture. The credit sequence begins with a slow descent down the walls of a high-rise building and there are many later images when we see the couple framed in interesting ways, by internal and external features of the various buildings they visit. Brody also refers to the industrialist’s claim during his party that he always sees his businesses as works of art – and that is conformed for us not only by the modernity of Milan’s architecture but by the abstract patterns of the industrialist’s house and grounds. Brody argues that: “The city of the living future is utterly alien to nature”. His suggestion is that what is inferred isn’t only the past but the future as well. The relationship between Giovanni and Lidia seems trapped between what has been lost and what is to come.
Both Mastroianni and Moreau were well-known actors in Europe in 1961. Were they ‘stars’? Moreau had certainly been in many films, some of them notable successes by this point, especially her films for Louis Malle, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud and Les amants, both in 1958, but she hadn’t yet achieved the string of notable performances throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. She does present a strong star persona in La notte. She doesn’t say much and she often appears quite solemn, but I feel like I could watch her walking through streets for a long time, marvelling at just how she moves, how she holds herself, even simply how she wears her costumes. She was only in her early 30s when she made this film but she seems older. The narrative depends to some extent on Monica Vitti’s youthfulness by comparison. But Vitti was actually less than four years younger than Moreau. I did notice that in the contest about who sported the thinnest spaghetti straps on her little black dress Vitti did win. I think what really interests me here is the extent to which our readings change over time. Do we now feel much more for Lidia and the way she seems to be pushed out by Giovanni’s celebrity? Looking back, Moreau and Mastroianni were of equal status but he is the agent of the narrative. Moreau as Lidia does get screen time on her own and she acts in ways that reveal things about herself as well as commenting on her relationship with Giovanni. She also introduces aspects of a critique of Italian bourgeois society in 1961. Mastroianni is a beautiful man but in many roles he appears weak and vulnerable. Although as Giovanni his actions structure the events of the day – the couple go to the book launch and the party where he is a significant figure – he seems to be being manipulated and played with, especially by Valentina and her father.
The ending of the film is quite shocking in some ways. I’ve outlined the events of the film but I won’t spoil the conclusion by describing it in detail. What intrigues me is that watching the film in 2022 I want the film to be about Lidia and I’m not so interested in Giovanni. I’m conscious about the way Giovanni’s talent is being possibly wasted but it is Lidia I want to see breaking free. Is this because so much emphasis is now placed on the agency of the female character? Is it because of Moreau’s performance or is it that this is always how the film has been read? I can’t remember what I thought when I first saw the film as a young man 40 or 50 years ago. I’ve seen several more films featuring Moreau or Mastroianni since then. Does that mean I read La notte differently now? Perhaps it is because Antonioni is less interested in the conventional modes of storytelling that he opens up the space to think about how these men and women behave? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions but I did enjoy watching the film and I’d like to visit Milan.
La notte is currently streaming on MUBI and BFI (subscribers only).
So today, May 2nd, is the centenary of the birth of Satyajit Ray; one of the giants of World Cinema. Here in Britain we have to wait to celebrate the master in theatrical settings; however, the National Film Archive do have a number of 35mm prints which hopefully we can enjoy soon.
Meanwhile there is an online celebration of his work at the Saudha International Satyajit Ray Congress. Happily it is streaming on You Tube so even if you cannot join in the zoom meeting you can follow it. It promises to be a rewarding affair with contributions from film-makers, critics and fans. It runs from 3 p.m. today Sunday [British Summer Time which is 2 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time] and again from 3 p.m. Monday [2 p.m. GMT].
Max von Sydow is the key figure in one of the most famous shots in world cinema; a world weary knight plays chess with the figure of Death on a stony beach as a grey sea rolls behind them. For me this was one of the key images and revelations of contemporary art cinema when I saw the film on 16mm at the Bournemouth Film Society. After a decade of mainstream entertainment I became engaged with a world of cinema that was often slower, usually more ambiguous but which was intellectually challenging in a wholly different register.
Max von Sydow became interested in acting during school trips to the Theatre. After military service he trained at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where Bibi Andersson also trained. Both had small parts in Alf Sjöberg’s Miss Julie / Fröken Julie (1951). He moved to work at the Malmö City Theatre where Ingmar Bergman was chief director. The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957) followed. Few actors can have enjoyed such an iconic character in their first leading role. His ability to play characters that were reflexive and cerebral made his performance stand out in the film and in contemporary cinema.
There followed a series of films with Bergman, defining both the work of the director and of the actor. Max von Sydow at times seemed to represent an alter ego for Bergman, He appeared in both leading and supporting roles in the films. The Virgin Spring / (Jungfrukällan, 1960) was another medieval tale, this time following the revenge of a father (Christian Per Töre) for his raped daughter. Once more the film was censored [parts of the rape scene] in the USA. Like The Seventh Seal this was a grim and dark tale, but with a ray of light at the resolution.
Then in Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spege, 1961) he played Martin, the father of Karin (Harriet Andersson) who suffers from schizophrenia. This is an intimate small-scale drama set on the island of Fårö, a location Bergman was to use for several more films. This is one of my personal favourites among Bergman films. I have watched it numerous times and I am always completely taken with the writing, acting and the development of drama and character. And the film enjoys the great artist, Sven Nykvist, as director of cinematography,
Bergman made a further series of what can be described as ‘chamber pieces’. Max von Sydow was a lead in the fine Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963). As Jonas Persson von Sydow is part of a small church congregation. The film then explores question of faith and of the wider issues in the world, including the then ever-present threat of the bomb [nuclear]. This film, along with the other chamber works, set up exploration of faith and the spiritual which seemed to dominate Bergman’s work in this period.
There were three films in which Max von Sydow played opposite Liv Ullmann. Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1967), filmed on an island in the south-west: Shame (Skammen, 1968), film on the island of Faro: and A Passion / The Passion of Anna (En Passion, 1969) also filmed on Faro and the only title of the three in colour. I was not quite as struck with these films as the earlier chamber pieces but the acting of Ullmann and von Sydow was really impressive.
Von Sydow had parts in later Bergman films and also worked with the director in theatre (‘Peer Gynt’ and, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’) and dramas for Swedish radio and television. He also worked with other Swedish film-makers, notably in Jan Troell’s two part The Emigrants (Utvandrarna 1971) which followed people from the old world to the new world of North America. In the 1950s and 1960s von Sydow had resisted offer from the USA and for international productions. Then in 1965 he accepted a lead part in The Greatest Story Ever Told. This was against the advice of Ingmar Bergman, and after seeing the film I agreed with the latter.
Better was the 1967 Hawaii, adapted from a sprawling James Michener novel. Von Sydow played opposite a miscast Julie Andrews but the plotting was fascinating; one could read this as a dramatisation of Jane Eyre’s possible life if she had accompanied St John Rivers to the missions.
The other key film for his career was the 1966 The Quiller Memorandum. Von Sydow is part of a gang of neo-nazis, notably violent and sadistic. And frequently in his subsequent career his particular persona was used for villains, often pretty over the top. Three Days of the Condor was a happy exception where he was a completely professional assassin. But Escape to Victory (1981) was more typical; we, like he, had to watch Sylvester Stallone pretending to be able to play British-style football. This long trajectory as a villain always rather puzzled me. It crept into the European art scene with a film by Jan Troell’s Hansum (1996) as a real-life collaborator from World War Ii.
There were other pretty good films. Von Sydow won an Academy Award for Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle erobreren, 1987) where he performed the most difficult challenge for an adult actor; playing opposite a child. He also won an Academy Award for The Exorcist (1973). I have never understood Mark Kermode’s love of this film. It seems to me that Bergman’s religious dramas are both far more interesting and closer to the real world.
Max von Sydow clocked up 163 credits for work in film and television. I have only seen a fraction of these. Some actors are very careful in the parts they considered and take on; Jeremy Irons would seen an example, even in a conventional genre film his character is really interesting. Max von Sydow appears closer to someone like Michael Caine who seems to take everything they are offered; fine films and dross. And I am not really certain why?
In retrospect, like his fellow thespian from the Royal Dramatic Theatre Bibi Andersson, I think he is defined by the work with Ingmar Bergman. Some of the director’s best and most memorable films feature his fine acting. And as I expect these to remain classics of world cinema I expect Max von Sydow to be long remembered.
Christened Berit Elizabeth, in her professional life this actress used Bibi. She is best known for her work with the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. She graced some of his finest films, along with what must be the finest group of women actors to work with a single artist. Intriguingly, her first work with the famous artist was at age 16 in an advertisement for a detergent.
He [Bergman] also wrote and produced a series of commercial for Bris, a deodorant soap manufacturer by the Sunlight Corporation. It marked his first contact with teenager Bib Andersson who was to become part of his acting stable both on film and in the theatre, and with whom he was to establish a Higgins-Eliza relationship, a Pygmalian liaison that the actress eventfully would withdraw from. (Birgitta Steene in Ingmar Bergman A Reference Guide, Amsterdam University Press, 2005).
Andersson appeared in the eighth of nine episodes, ‘The Princess and the Swineherd’; a variation on a tale by Hans Christina Anderson. In the commercial version the swineherd attraction is a ‘remarkable soap.
Her early career involved study at the Royal Dramatic Theatre School and then work at the same Theatre in Stockholm. An early film role was as a supporting player in Alf Sjoberg’s film version of Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’ (Fröken Julie, 1951). Another regular of Bergman also appearing in a supporting role was Max von Sydow. She then had a supporting role in Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens Leende, 1955), one of my favourite Bergmans with a fine cast and fine production values.
Her early major role was in The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet, 1956) as Mia, the wife of Jof, the juggler, and mother of their child Mikael. Mia and Jof provide a simple and good family in contrast to the either cynical or villainous characters mainly encountered by Max von Sydow’s world weary knight. At the film ends, cutting from a stark silhouette of death and his victims, we see the family ride on in the sunshine in a new day.
This was followed by another major Bergman film, Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957). Birgitta Steene notes that the English title does not quite catch the-Swedish sense:
Literal translation would point to a spot where smultron or wild strawberries grow. Since these berries are rare in Sweden, places where they grow are often kept a secret in the family. But the word smultronstället also carries symbolic meaning and refers to a person’s ‘jewel of place’ or special retreat.
Bib Andersson plays Sara who the protagonist, Isak Borg, sees in a reverie from his past. Sara is picking wild strawberries while being courted by Isak’s brother. Andersson also plays another Sara in the film present. Both Sara’s are involved in the final comforting sequence. Alongside Bibi Andersson, Isak is played by the veteran filmmaker and actor Victor Sjöström. This and the way that the film mixes reality with dream-like sequences creates a masterful and complex relation between past and present.
Brink of Life (Nära Livee, 1958) takes us to the other end of life, set in a hospital maternity ward. Three women: Cecilia (Ingrid Thulin) who suffers a miscarriage: Stina (Eva Dahlbeck) is overdue: and Hjördis (Bibi Andersson) is considering an abortion. The three actresses, along with Babro Hiort af Ornäs who plays Sister Britta, shared the Best Actress Award at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival whilst Bergman won the Best Director Award.
After a couple more leading roles Bib Andersson joined Liv Ullmann in what I believe to be Berman’s finest film and one of the great modernist art works; Persona (1966). Andersson and Ullmann are alone together for almost the entire film. Liv Ullmann as Elisabet Vogler is a famous actress who has suffered withdrawal and become mute. Bibi Andersson is Alma, the young nurse, who is to care for Vogler. In order to help the pair move to a summer house on an Island where they are alone. The relationship is intense though not always obviously. As Elisabet’s silence continues Alma becomes more and more voluble. There is one sequence where Alma recounts an earlier sexual encounter to the mute Elisabet; it is all on the voice and is one of the most erotic sequences that I have seen on film. At one point the two characters appear to merge and the ending is suitably ambiguous.
Alma’s monologue on her sexual experience was cut in the English translation for the US release as was an erect penis seen in the pre-credit sequence. Bibi Andersson won a BAFTA as Best Actress in 1967 and in 1968 the US National Society of Film Critics honoured the film’s direction, screenplay, acting [Andersson] and cinematography. Bergman later commented that he had written the screenplay with the two actresses in mind. It is possibly the best work of both. Perhaps Andersson won the awards because Ullmann has virtually no dialogue; her acting is still superb.
Andersson made several more films with Bergman, including a major supporting role in Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap,1973). This drama, spread over six/four sections and an extended period, was seen on Swedish television as a 281 minute mini-series and in a film print that was reduced to 167 minutes. Then, as Birgitta Steene noted, Andersson pursued a career away from her personal mentor.
She was, though, involved in theatrical productions directed by Bergman, including playing Ase in Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’ in 1991. She made a number of programmes for both television and radio about Bergman and his work; some involving Bergman himself.
She also had an extensive career in Swedish films by other directors and in international and US based films. She also worked in the US theatre. And in the 1990s she directed theatrical productions in Sweden.
I have seen hardly any of these and it remains that her reputation rests on the films she worked on with Ingmar Bergman. These are some of the best of Bergman’s films and are rightly classics of European and world cinema. Surely films like Persona will remain classics in the years to come and Bibi Andersson will remain an important actor in cinema history.
This is a startling film for a number of reasons. Most obvious is the nature of the representations of sexual intercourse, which are the most explicit I’ve seen. Compared to In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korîda, Japan, 1976) and The Idiots (Idioterne, Denmark-Spain-Sweden-France-Netherlands-Italy, 1998), for example, both of which feature hardcore sex, this film raises the bar for arthouse explicitness. The film even trumps Gaspar Noé’s provocations (at least the ones I’ve seen such as Love) as this is indisputably a pornographic film. Director Albertina Carri (she also co-wrote with Analía Couceyro) does use the narrative as a frame for moving on to the next sex scene. I can’t remember where I read that pornography is like the musical: in the latter the narrative moves us on to the next ‘song and dance’ number; in the former it is for the ‘moan and grope’ sequences. However the film is also more than porn.
Carri, whose short film Barbie Can also Be Sad (Barbie también puede estar triste, Argentina, 2002) is reputably also worth a watch, has made a meta-porn movie using arthouse techniques to comment on and question what we are seeing. This is primarily through the voiceover of one of the two characters who embark on a road trip (to stop one of their mothers selling a car!) where they pick up other women along the way. Inés Duacastella’s cinematography beautifully captures the austere landscapes of Patagonia; I’m not sure but I think they are headed south toward Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world (continent) which is named after fire. Road movies usually lead characters to learn about themselves, but this bunch are already full of knowledge about their sexuality and apparently need little more. In this sense, the spaces they move through are utopian; there are no psychological impediments to their lasciviousness. They are challenging patriarchy and have little problem dispensing with the two homophobic misogynists they come across: a utopian space indeed!
Carri’s crew was apparently virtually all female and although I found the film intensely erotic I (heterosexual male) am not the target audience. I suspect many will find the graphic sex scenes too much to view but the film is clearly more than porn (listen to the interesting discussion between academics José Arroyo and Deborah Shaw). (I’m trying to avoid ‘protesting too much’ so it seems I’m justifying watching porn).
There are moments of great beauty in the film. The hallucinogenic sequence when the characters take mushrooms, where imagery of sea life is superimposed on the image, is particularly stunning. Whilst not going the whole Godardian hog of alienating the spectator from the film with the voiceover, Carri does enough to get us thinking about what we are seeing. The final, long take, of a woman masturbating reminded of the scene in Godard’s British Sounds (UK 1970) where a naked woman stands on a stairway with a Marxist-Leninist tract on the soundtrack (as I remember it at least). The content of the shot is such that the viewer is interrogated as much as the image.
The film’s showing on MUBI for a while and is available on at least one pornographic website, an interesting platform for an arthouse movie.
It was good to catch up with Kleber Mendonça Filho’s debut film (on MUBI) after being wowed by Aquarius and Bacurau. Its narrative is like the latter’s in terms of lacking a clear protagonist and both share a political dimension. However, it lacks the thrust of his latest movie as it offers a mosaic of life in an upmarket housing complex in Recife, Filho’s home town. Like the roaming Steadicam of the opening shot, we spend our time with different neighbours: Maeve Jinkings’ Bia, a bored housewife tormented by next door’s howling dog; Joao (Gustavo Jahn) who works, unhappily, as his grandfather’s estate agent; Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) who at first appears to be a hustler offering street security. Minor problems, a broken into car, a receptionist asleep on the job, seem to all the conflict available to drive the narrative forward.
The film actually begins with a montage of photographs that seem to be from colonial era sugar plantations; the patriarchal grandfather (WJ Solha) bemoans the fact his family no longer visit the sugar mill. The purpose of these images is not clear until the very end. I say ‘not clear’, I mean not to me whose knowledge of Brazilian history is extremely limited. While indigenous audiences are always likely to get more from a film, in this case I suspect it is substantially more.
Filho, an ex-film critic, came to directing in his 40s (he also wrote the script) and has clearly absorbed all the ‘lessons’ of making films. The sense of space could easily have been confusing as we buzz about different apartments, but the film is skilfully constructed to ensure we know where we are. There are a couple of odd moments: a couple steal into a apparently empty apartment to have sex and, in a horror movie moment, a person suddenly runs past the bedroom doorway! And when Joao is standing underneath a waterfall, whilst on a visit to the countryside, the torrent of water suddenly turns red. Whilst the former moment is not explained, the expressionist purpose of the latter is made clear at the end.
If I sound somewhat disengaged from the film then that was my experience. It clocks in at over two hours and Filho makes few concessions to entertainment, though there is some humour (the gag with the boy and his football should have run longer) and some sex scenes. That said, the cumulative effect of experiencing a slice of affluent Brazilian life, contextualised by the ending, is more than worth the effort.
It is certainly an antidote to the ‘poverty porn’ of City of God (Brazil-France-Germany, 2002) and has some similarities to the Mexican La Zona, though that was much more genre based.