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Beyond the Clouds

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 3 December 1999

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.

Starring John Malkovich, 
Kim Rossi-Stuart, Ines Sastre, 
Sophie Marceau, Peter Weller, 
Chiara Caselli, Fanny Ardant, 
Jean Reno, Jeanne Moreau, 
Marcello Mastroianni, Iréne Jacob 
and Vincent Perez.

Written by Tonino Guerra, 
Michelangelo Antonioni and Wim Wenders, 
based on short stories from 
The Bowling Alley on the Tiber 
by Antonioni.

In Beyond the Clouds, the first feature film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni in over a decade, John Malkovich plays a filmmaker and photographer who, descending in a commercial airliner into the fog-bound streets of Ferrara, is already musing on what form his next film will take after having completed his last one. It is for this purpose that he has come to an unfamiliar city, trying to empty his mind of all thoughts, all distractions. "It is in the darkness that reality lights up, and in the silence that the voices arrive for words..." It is through images that, he says, he has come to a better understanding of reality. And it is then that he tells us of the first of four stories that we will see enacted in the film, the first "a relationship that lasted for years without ever existing.”

This is the first film by the great modernist director since 1983, when a stroke left him unable to speak or write. Gradually, with the help of his wife Enrica, he worked out a system whereby he could communicate again, and, starting in 1989, began making an active return to filmmaking, directing a series of short films. By the early Nineties, when he had shown he was ready to direct a feature film, Wim Wenders, for insurance purposes, had to sign-on as a back-up director. Wenders directed some of the introductory and connecting segments for the film's four main episodes, but the majority of what you see on the screen was helmed by Antonioni himself. (The film premiered in Italy in the fall of 1995, and was a hit. It is only now receiving proper theatrical distribution in the U.S., opening in New York City on Dec. 1, and in Los Angeles on Dec. 3.)

The film's first and last episodes prove to be the best. A young man (Kim Rossi-Stuart, who has the striking face of a knight from the Morte d'Arthur) meets a beautiful, and inviting, young woman (Ines Sastre) at a small hotel where both are staying. But their meeting never progresses beyond the stage of conversation. Three years later, they meet again, but, although the young lady is willing, the young man again cannot instigate a relationship with her, whether out of fear or concern over how things might develop. The episode, which has some surprisingly erotic moments to it (and that is a term that I do not bandy about often, if at all), captures a very rare but precise emotion, the unexpected sense of precariousness which one feels when confronted with taking the final step towards acting decisively, or not.

The final episode also has to do with two people who meet by chance. Another young man (Vincent Perez) is drawn to a young woman (Iréne Jacob) who passes by him as they go out through a doorway. He follows her, but the calm, yet determined, way in which she walks down the street -- to church, as it turns out -- makes her all the more appealing to the young man. Unwilling to lose her as yet, he goes in to attend church services with her. Is Antonioni taking an unexpected turn towards religious considerations, here? (It wouldn't be surprising, given his recent experiences, if his thoughts had turned towards higher matters.) As it turns out, the story's religious angle is a means whereby things come to a droll conclusion: the young lady turns out not to be quite so obtainable, after all.

In both episodes, and elsewhere -- a third story where Malkovich's character has an encounter with a woman, a boutique clerk (Sophie Marceau), in Portofino -- Antonioni, who is in his 80s, shows a vivid regard for the beauty, and sensual power, of women. Ines Sastre conveys a remarkably down-to-earth quality -- she shows a satisfied unhurriedness as she changes-clothes before retiring, in one scene -- and Jacob, an already beautiful actress, glows with a radiant composure that gives her sequence the transcendent quality it needs. Antonioni is again working with the cinematographer, Alfio Contini, who did some remarkable visual work for his 1970 film, Zabriskie Point, among others, and much of the film has a supple, luminescent quality to it, with a very exact usage of colour and shading.

The film's third episode is hampered somewhat by two of its performers. Peter Weller plays an American., living in Paris, who starts an affair with a girl (Chiara Casselli) whom he meets under unusual circumstances in a cafe. (She tells him about a news story she read of how people transporting some corpses may have caused the souls of the deceased to become mislaid along the way.) We then see him go home to his wife -- only the scene showing him coming home, after the encounter with the girl in the cafe, turns out to be occurring three years later. The wife (Fanny Ardant) is upset because she's distraught over whether the husband has just come home after leaving the bed of his lover. The husband placates her, but when he next sees his mistress, she's upset over whether he has just come to her after being with his wife: she says she can sense the traces of this "cheated woman" on his person. So nobody's happy either way.

Weller, who has given one of the best performances of the decade as Bill Lee in David Cronenberg's film of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, does not perform well in French, or at least look like he's performing well. (His voice takes on a disembodied quality that keeps making you look to see whether it's coming from him or from somewhere else.) And the photography seems to bring out the most cadaverous, even gibbonesque, qualities of his facial features. Jean Reno, on the other hand, simply doesn't look comfortable at all. He plays a man who comes home to an apartment that seems peculiarly under-furnished. It turns out that his wife has just left him, and emptied the place out in the process. Then, the apartment's new tenant turns up to take occupancy -- Ardant's jilted wife. Walking with dangling arms and the broad-shouldered gait of a loading dock worker, Reno seems ill-at-ease working in a film made by a director of stature. But the episode packs some punch: it concludes with two characters recognizing in each other that particular sense of sadness that occurs when people have just been disappointed and heartbroken by someone with whom they were in love.

Towards the end of Beyond the Clouds, there is a short episode where Jeanne Moreau and the late Marcello Mastroianni appear. The two performers had appeared in Antonioni's La Notte, back in 1961, and it is obvious, here, that they enjoy working with each other again: the sequence has an infectious quality that is genuinely touching. Mastroianni is seen painting the same landscape in Aix-en-Provence that had been previously painted by Cezanne, and replicating Cezanne's style while doing so. Moreau, passing by, wonders aloud why he should copy this particular view of a landscape done by Cezanne, in the style of Cezanne, when, if he wanted a picture of it, a simple photograph would do. But, Mastroianni responds, anyone who copies the work of a great artist stands a chance to also copy the manner of a great artist, even, perhaps, the artist's exact gesture. "A copy of a gesture," Moreau says. Mastroianni's response: Why not? Copying the gesture of a genius would give him more satisfaction than any that he might do himself.

Antonioni, of course, doesn't need to copy anyone. He's already firmly established his own style, and entering this film is like stepping into a new room where, once you're past the doorway, the rhythms and pacing are new but are also highly agreeable. (The film will be praised by some critics for this superficial quality alone, in our age of slam-'em, bam-'em movie style.) Chris Wagstaff wrote in an article that appeared in Sight and Sound of how Antonioni would come up with ingenious ways to film scenes that, in terms of shot-countershot techniques of filming, would seem different from the norm but would turn out to work splendidly when finally seen assembled on the screen. In a take that rivals the extraordinary closing shot of his 1975 film, The Passenger, Antonioni concludes Beyond the Clouds with a view of four windows in a hotel where Malkovich's character is staying: a person alone, two people together, another person alone yet introspective, and finally, in the only window looking into an unlit room, Malkovich's filmmaker-photographer. After viewing the four stories his character tells us about and which we, then, see, enacted, for ourselves, he brings the film to a close by receding from viewing -- or seeming to. We can only go on the basis of what we, ourselves, see at that moment. (The shimmering music that accompanies this sequence is by U2 and Brian Eno, who contributed to creating the film's music score along with Lucio Dalla, Laurent Petitgand and Van Morrison.)

Beyond the Clouds is one of the very, very, very rare films which comes to expand and take on greater significance in your mind after you see it, and becomes more meaningful, even more precious (in the best sense of the word), in your recollection. Its observations have a more ruminative, more informed and compassionate quality to them. This does not seem like the work of a man who, in 1966, said, ”...I don't think there is any love in the world. Nobody is in love. Also, there is no feeling for family. No religion. Most people of the new generation are dreamers. L.S.D. and mescaline are better for them than love."

Malkovich's character wonders about the ability to capture experience through art, or writing, or filmmaking, because the experience, as conveyed to an audience, is always going to be one step removed from the actual thing. Like frames on a wound reel of film, ”...we know that, behind every image revealed, there is another image more faithful to reality, and in back of that image there is another, and yet another behind the last one, and so on, up to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that no one will ever see...."

The most striking thing about the film, directly after seeing it, is that Antonioni seems, still, to be concerned with the same things that concerned him when he made L'Avventura over 30 years ago: the inability of people to truly communicate, and to make truly lasting bonds, whether it's in a personal relationship between two people or the relationship between an artist and an audience. The tone and form of these concerns hasn't seemed to have changed much. Plans were announced last spring for Antonioni to direct a new film that would appear in theaters next year, and while we should only be so lucky to have the opportunity to see another new Michelangelo Antonioni film, one wonders if he will ever find solutions to the problems of the human condition that continue to haunt him.

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