Identification of a Woman

In a passage half-way through Sam Rohdie’s book, Antonioni, he mentions Michelangelo Antonioni’s interest in dress, artifice, fashion and bodies that we could usefully open up. As Rohdie suggests, fashion “has always fascinated Antonioni” (1) but so also, or at least since the liberalization of the image in the 1960s, has nudity. Now nudity and fashion might seem antonyms, with one concerning the obviously unclothed, and the other the refinely dressed, but we needn’t be Robert Altman, à la Prêt-à-Porter (1994), to know that nudity and fashion are often in fact closely linked. Indeed, maybe nudity and fashion are more closely connected than nudity and nakedness. For nakedness is in many ways very different from nudity, with nakedness the body not so much undressed as pre-dressed: the body as birthday suit as opposed to the body decorously nude. Whether it is a nude back in a black Armani dress in La Notte (1961), the nude cavorting models in Blowup (1966), or the explicit sex scenes in Identificazione di una donna (Identification of a Woman, 1982), Al di là delle nuvole (Beyond the Clouds, 1995) and his episode (“Il filo pericoloso delle cose”) in Eros (2004), Antonioni offers various forms of decorous nudity.

To help us explore this notion of nudity in Antonioni, Roland Barthes immediately comes to mind, and especially his well-known short essay on striptease. For Barthes, “striptease – at least Parisian striptease – is based on a contradiction. Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked.” (2) Later in the essay, he believes

the end of the striptease is to signify […] through the shedding of an incongruous and artificial clothing, nakedness as a natural vesture of woman, which amounts in the end to regaining a perfectly chaste state of the flesh. (3)

But in Antonioni’s work what seems interesting is that the woman is rarely allowed to become naked in an obviously natural state, and that she generally retains her sense of nudity. Yet this never seems simply a prurient nudity, though voyeurism is hardly excluded from it. Even in what would appear the most obvious example of nakedness over nudity, the primal sex scene in Death Valley in Zabriskie Point (1970), Antonioni exaggerates the nakedness, turns it into something less or more than the naked, into something closer to abstraction. As Rohdie proposes:

at the moment when the image is most narratively empty and seems to revert to a purity of abstract form, at that moment it becomes most visually full. It is as if the dead, the void has come alive. (4)

This is the sort of abstraction writers like Mark Cousins pinpoint when saying Antonioni “became interested in the American abstract painting of the end of that decade [the 1950s].” (5)

But generally this hasn’t been Antonioni’s take on the unclothed body. Indeed, his approach to nudity has been similar in some ways to his approach to narrative and the image generally, where he pushes towards but not into abstraction. As he says, “We know that underneath the revealed image there is another image more faithful to reality, and beneath this still another, and again another under this last […]” (6) Antonioni’s take on nudity is not to de-sexualize, however, but let us say re-ontologize, to accept that the body unclothed is not especially naked or nude, as we will see John Berger defining it, but something in between. As Berger says in Ways of Seeing: “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen as naked by others and yet not be recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude.” (7) But what about the possibility that the seeing of the naked body becomes so internalized a process that nakedness becomes an impossibility? Berger takes this on board when he earlier in the book touches upon the Adam and Eve story:

What is striking about this story? They became aware of being naked because, as a result of eating the apple, each saw the other differently. Nakedness was created in the mind of the beholder. (8)

And also in the mind of the beheld.

Antonioni’s nudity is usually a beheld nudity, a nudity very different from Barthes’ de-sexualization, perhaps because the woman who strips does so for the purposes of a subjective fantasy being turned into an objectivized fact, taking into account Freud’s notion of fetishism, where the boy’s anxiety over a girl’s ‘missing penis’ demands he replaces it with a fetish. (9) Striptease is nothing if not a fetish culture, and Barthes focuses upon the frequent exoticism central to striptease. Thus, it would make sense for a woman to be de-sexualized and objectified the moment she appears naked. She’s not so much naked as de-fetishized. The lack is revealed.

In Antonioni’s work, though, it is a lack that is not the de-sexualized, defetishized lack of a Barthian or Freudian perspective, especially, but an ontological problematic that leaves nudity and nakedness as slightly inadequate terms to describe the flesh shown in the director’s work. If we look at an episode from Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds, Sophie Marceau’s nameless character is beautifully made up in a work skirt and jacket, as we see her working in a Portofino clothes shop, while John Malkovich’s narrator and, in this episode, central character, observes from outside the shop before entering the premises. At one stage as she crouches, Malkovich looks at her as the skirt rides ever so slightly up her thighs. Nothing is revealed, not even a snatch of underwear, but at the same time a great deal is revealed. There is a sense of each beholding the other sexually, as if aware that whatever each will reveal about the other if and when they meet and talk, will only be a diluted version of that first intense sense of an investigation. As they talk later by the sea front, Marceau more casually dressed in jeans and a striped top, reveals her past to Malkovich, but, though that past is extreme, the details are perfunctory. She explains that she killed her father, stabbing him twelve times, but this seems weakly revelatory next to the strong revealing of the possibilities of the flesh: a flesh revealed later in the episode as they make love.

Now throughout Rohdie’s book, the writer points up the importance of the investigation in Antonioni’s work. Hence, narrative is never really about what drama theory calls the obligatory scene, the inevitable outcome in relation to the narrative elements that have been set up, but about the nature of curiosity. As Rohdie believes,

Antonioni always exhibits a certain restlessness with the story and the narration of events, a kind of impatience with it, so that attention can often become errant, absorbed elsewhere, as if, though still ‘with’ narrative, he is also in search of something else. (10)

Within the nature of curiosity, narrative undeniably has its place (it may even in some ways be the first principle of narrative), but it’s as though the investigatory in Antonioni is stronger than the narratological. If at a certain point the narrative demands the obligatory scene, then what we have in Antonioni is the realization of the probabilities that he then eschews. Thus, in L’Avventura (1960), Anna (Lea Massari) goes missing and her partner, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), must go looking for her. In narrational terms, the options are already closing down: do they find her dead or alive? But if they do not find her, and Antonioni instead searches out their mixed feelings about Anna and towards each other, and their relationship with the landscape through which they pass, Antonioni retains the investigatory as he lets go of the narratively driven. After all, Anna is never found, and the viewer is increasingly left musing over the nature of the social milieu and the psychological malaise. Narrative investigation is replaced by a wider sense of enquiry.

Beyond the Clouds

This we can see if we think of the aforementioned episode in Beyond the Clouds. What is Sophie Marceau’s mystery? It is presumably that she killed her father, but Antonioni allows her quickly to reveal her ‘secret’ as if a secret that can be revealed is finally of no interest. That what counts is not a mystery revealed but an investigation embarked upon, and there is more mystery in that slightly ridden up skirt than there happens to be in any back story that Marceau’s character can reveal. It is as if Antonioni is asking how can backstory, which lends itself so well to narrative, be deemed so much less important than the presence of the flesh? What is there in the flesh that can retain the mysteriousness that narrative so often destroys? The flesh is also, if you like, a backstory, but a backstory consistent with the Antonioni comment quoted above, when he talks of surfaces and images masking other images. Certainly this isn’t to ignore completely the desexualized nudity Barthes talks of, but the desexualization is partly because striptease is a narrative awaiting completion. We can reformulate Barthes’ comment: woman is desexualized the moment the mystery has been removed, and that mystery is clothing, and its removal the conclusion of the story. Antonioni’s take on nudity and nakedness, though, never allows for the disrobing to arrive at a sense of conclusiveness. The suspense lies as much outside the body and inside the mind: as evidenced in another episode in Beyond the Clouds, where Silvano (Kim Rossi Stuart) and Carmen (Inés Sastre) meet in her apartment, disrobe (he naked, she in her panties) and look like they’re about to make love. But Silvano, after allowing his hand to hover over her body without ever touching it, suddenly backs away from the assignation, gets dressed and leaves.

Silvano seems finally more interested in his own tortured subjectivity and immanent desire than he is in the body that lies in front of him, and Antonioni films it in such a way that there can be no revelation through the sexual action, but only through a narrative incompletion. The obligatory scene would demand consummation: do so many films from a more censorious era not end on a moment of rather less explicitness and still leave us in no doubt that sex has taken place? Antonioni uses the available explicitness in the image not to make the romantic encounter still more categorical, but instead to push as close to the categorical before backing away, and thus generating the maximum amount of mystery.

Perhaps such a retreat could seem to contain a theological aspect: that Silvano retreats like a man determined to protect his vow of celibacy. But, of course, right up until the point that Silvano leaves, he has pursued Carmen. It is not a story of near-spiritual collapse against the weight of feminine wiles and sexual charm – the sort of story we find in Adonis Kyrou’s, Luis Buñuel co-scripted Le Moine (The Monk, 1972). No, this is decidedly un-theological and instead, if anything, anti-narratological. Antonioni isn’t asking the question about how can we be moral, how can we be true to a higher being and control our animal drives. It is more a case of trying to find motivating drives, telling ourselves and creating for ourselves stories, optimistic future tenses that can allow us a sense of freedom, possibility and purpose. So often lovemaking doesn’t offer that possibility in Antonioni’s cinema, and we might wonder whether the disappearing acts in Antonioni’s work, in Anna’s disappearance in L’Avventura, Mavi (Daniela Silverio) disappearing halfway through Identification of a Woman, aren’t variations on Silvano’s retreat here.

In the latter, Mavi searches out sexual pleasure with the leading character, Niccolò (Tomas Milian), even as she is obviously going to be in pain the following day. Antonioni captures a woman seeking satisfaction, but irritated with herself at the pain it then causes her. There is a sense here that Antonioni’s exploring not the moral problem of sexual activity, but the physical problem, where tired, emotionally exhausted bodies need more intensifying pleasures to retain excitation. But out of these intense pleasures there is a general air of dissatisfaction, ennui and masochism. To draw an analogy consistent with our earlier observations on narrative, Antonioni’s questioning of sexual excitation resembles the director’s retreat from narrative intensity. Just as cinema, the more narratively driven it becomes, demands greater intensification (David Bordwell has used the term “intensified continuity” to analyse many contemporary films’ obsession with, amongst other things, tightening narrative screws) (11), so Antonioni loosens narrative, makes it slacker, more open, more possible. And, by the same token perhaps, this is also what the characters are trying to do if they eschew sexual inevitability for subtler, more perplexing possibilities.

Beyond the Clouds

As we look at the four short stories in Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds, we see that they all work with variations on this emotional, sexual problematic. In the first episode, Silvano finally retreats from sexual interaction with Carmen. In the second, Malkovich makes love to Marceau, but then seems to leave before the post-coital emotional release. In the third episode, Peter Weller’s character, the husband, vacillates between two women, his wife and his mistress, and commits to one and then promptly makes love to the other, while his wife seems ready to take up with a man whose wife has just left him. In the fourth episode, the smooth hopeful womanizer, played by Vincent Perez, becomes promptly fascinated by a simple, lovely young woman who it turns out is spending her last moments wandering around Rome before she enters a convent. In both the first and the last episode, the male characters settle for the celibate (the first through choice, the latter through enforcement), and they are probably the most optimistic of the tales. This could leave us thinking that Antonioni is an easy moralist – that casual sex is better eschewed than problematically committed to.

But this would be to confuse inevitability with possibility. What Antonioni wants to do is remove the inevitability from the possibility. It is an æsthetic position a little like Casanova’s, but with greater final freedom if we take into account a comment James O’Higgins made in an interview with Michel Foucault: “I’m reminded of Casanova’s famous expression that ‘the best moment in life is when one is climbing the stairs’.” (12). In such a statement, there is a sense of sexual possibility without inevitability. Antonioni’s position on sex, narrative and nudity has been always to keep as many options open as possible, or to explore how they are promptly closed off.

This exploration will even include, of course, the way Antonioni will use the camera. As Wim Wenders says in his book, My Time with Antonioni, “these rushes have the ‘modern’ look of all his films […] undeniably every inch of this footage has Michelangelo’s signature on it. No one else would have shot in quite this way.” (13) And what might this way be? It is perhaps to be simultaneously investigatory yet indifferent, and this would certainly be a way of exploring Antonioni’s approach to the unclothed. When Wenders watches on set the love-making scene between Marceau and Malkovich, he says, “It’s not my thing at all.” But though Wenders is a filmmaker who rarely shows nudity or sex in his films, many directors more given to sexual explicitness would nevertheless be likely to say the same thing, no matter the all-too-conventional, even cheesy music that accompanies the scenes. As Wenders insists, “the actors have given their all” (14), Antonioni will of course only take what he needs – “ultimately Michelangelo will assemble the scene on the cutting table anyway.” (15)

Now, if a filmmaker is searching out the sexually explicit, the voyeuristic and the prurient, the most obvious directions would be to allow the actors to give their all, and also to film that all-ness. We might think of the full sexual explicitness, in, say, Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004) or Jang Sun Woo’s Gojitmal (Lies, 1999), where there is a documentative realism as the filmmaker searches out verisimilitude.

Alternatively, there is what we will call the “voyeuristically contained”, where a woman disrobes but the film makes it clear it isn’t first and foremost we who are watching the strip, but a voyeuristic character who takes on the burden of the scopophilia. Antonioni neither gives us the documentative would be-verisimilitude, nor the voyeuristically contained. There is a vague sense of frigidity to the style as Antonioni wants neither to confirm nor condemn the scene he shows us, but to puzzle over its implications, while nevertheless wondering if there is something, somewhere else, more meaningful than the sharing of bodily fluids. There is a key line at the end of La Notte, where Jeanne Moreau’s Lidia says to the husband that she’s drifting away from, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni): “I feel like dying because I no longer love you.” With no love, it seems, fluids just become fluids.

There is a nice term for God’s absence in the world, of his presence as absence: the apophatic. Perhaps we need a similar term for Antonioni’s sense not of God’s absence but love’s. This frequent presence of love’s absence helps explain why “no one else would shoot a love scene in quite this way”, as Wenders proposes. If for Barthes the removal of clothing is a sociological issue, revealing the naked body without its attributes of sexual commodification, Antonioni’s perspective on the no longer clothed leaves us wondering what the absence of love, the ‘apocupidic’, if you like, leaves. If you remove from the body its epistemological sensuality, should it not leave just a dull, blunt physicality? But Antonioni wants not the blunt physicality, but some metaphysical trace left in a body without love. Ostensibly, Antonioni’s physicality could have been similar to Barthes’ desexualized woman because both the desexualized Barthesian stripper, and the Antonioni-esque nude, are working from the same cultural source: a certain luxury, ‘familiar and bourgeois”, is how Barthes describes Parisian striptease at the Moulin Rouge. However, just as that great filmmaker of the apophatic in cinema, Robert Bresson, could say “When people become so materialistic, religion is not possible, because religion is poverty and poverty is the way of having contact with mystery and with God” (16), we could replace the absence of the theological in Bresson with the absence of love in Antonioni. We could say that the relative plenitude of choice in the sexually affluent society potentially removes the rigour for love.

Is there not this sense in many of Antonioni’s films of the grass being greener as characters constantly fall in and out of love or refuse to commit? We can think of married couple Lidia and Giovanni’s tentative move towards affairs in La Notte, Monica Vitti’s sexual night in I Deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964), Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero’s (Alain Delon) inability to commit to a new relationship in L’Eclisse (1962), Mavi’s disappearing act in Identification of a Woman, the affair in Antonioni’s episode of Eros.

It is certainly there in Beyond the Clouds, where each image of affluence finds itself countered by the need for material absence and emotional sustenance. At the beginning of the first episode, Silvano pulls over in what looks like a top-of-the-range BMW. When he later meets up again with Carmen, the woman whom he met a couple of year earlier in a hotel and whom he’s been in love with ever since, and whose apartment he visits, he comments on how rich she must be. In the third episode, Peter Weller’s character and Patricia (Fanny Ardant) live in a grand Parisian home, whilst Weller’s lover is more modestly but still quite luxuriously ensconced in a relatively roomy top floor apartment. A viewer might echo critic Pauline Kael’s amusing observation about a woman she once visited in Beverly Hills:

She almost quivered with terror whenever anyone came into the room, although God knows the butler had screened them carefully. Her conversation, or rather the phrases she dropped from nowhere into nothing, were about whether she should open an art gallery, or give up her marriage, or take a trip, but to where …? (17)

There is a sense that luxury meeting misery is a paradox too far, but of course it could just as readily be seen as inevitable. Antonioni is very good at giving the impression that inevitability is constantly in danger of superimposing itself on possibility, and not least because of luxury. There may be an ostensible sense of choice – whether to open an art gallery or take a trip – but it is as if one’s sense of elitism denies many of life’s possibilities. When, at the end of the third episode in Beyond the Clouds, the very wealthy wife looks like she’s going to take up with Jean Reno’s character Carlo, an apparently equally wealthy figure, the film ends on a sombre note which contains within it a touch of irony. “There is a cure for everything”, Carlo says, moving towards Patricia before taking her hands in his. “That is what scares me”, she replies, as the possible once again looks like it might give way to the inevitable. There she is in a luxury top-floor apartment that belongs to another wealthy man, and it looks like she’ll take up with him as her husband is promptly replaced. As the final shot closes in on Patricia’s wracked face, this seems less a look in relation to her marital loss than despair at life’s limitations when you happen to belong to the class that apparently has everything.

Identification of a Woman

Antonioni’s attitude to nudity is that of a filmmaker who wants to capture, in the nakedness of the body, this luxurious, hopeless tentativeness of being. As one critic proposed in relation to Identification of a Woman, “Niccolò/Antonioni in their search for the unsearchable […] find the nothingness in the opulence of everything […]” (18) Now, this is generally not an existential tentativeness as Jean-Paul Sartre would define it, where one has to find one’s own meaning, evident when he says

existential psychoanalysis will reveal to man the real goal of his pursuit, which is being as a synthetic fusion of the in-itself with the for-itself; existential psychoanalysis will acquaint man with his passion. (19)

No, in Antonioni’s work passion seems to lack this fusion of in-itself and for-itself because being has lost its ontological underpinning.

Antonioni isn’t offering deterministic categoricals about this absence, it is just a pervasive sense of loss. As he says, “It’s a difficult age for everything. I have no regrets for the love stories of other times”, and adds,

the ‘passion’ of the last century makes us smile today. It’s true that people still kill themselves for love, but I am sure that if you investigate deeply the various acts of that kind, one would find many other motivations beside love. (20)

Thus, in Antonioni’s work, a body isn’t naked, as in the desexualized nakedness of Barthes, versus the erotically semi-clad, nor is it, of course, an un-self conscious birthday suit nakedness, the nakedness Berger talks about as no longer generally available in the visual arts in the West. This is also about the problem of being.

It is also why, finally, that it isn’t even simply an issue of nudity – though nudity focuses the concept wonderfully – for, of course, many of Antonioni’s films have no nudity at all. Yet, Antonioni was always a filmmaker one sensed who would utilise nudity given weakening censorship. There was something in his style, in his need to reveal aspects of being, that suggested he was anticipating, awaiting the liberation of censorship. There are many filmmakers for whom this was obviously never going to be the case – from John Ford to Yasujiro Ozu, from Howard Hawks to Akira Kurosawa, from Vincente Minnelli to Satyajit Ray. But for others, like maybe Max Ophüls, Roberto Rossellini and Douglas Sirk, a certain type of unravelling could have utilised nudity very well. Antonioni was one of those filmmakers, because he’s always been preoccupied by elements that lend themselves well to the body unclothed. Intimate revelation, the geometry of bodies, and, as Gilles Deleuze pointed out, the fatigue of the brain in relation to the body: “He is not an author who moans about the impossibility of communication in the world […] The world awaits its inhabitants, who are still lost in neurosis.” As Deleuze says, “but this is one more reason to pay attention to the body, to scrutinize its tiredness and neurosis, to take tints from it” (21).

What Antonioni asks is for us to take tints from these bodies and so, just as Cousins can invoke the abstract expressionists in relation to Antonioni’s earlier work, we could mention the super-realists of the body to pinpoint Antonioni’s more recent preoccupations: artists like Philip Pearlstein, Lucian Freud and maybe John de Andrea. The former paints ‘nudity’ rather than nakedness, while David Piper suggests de Andrea produces ‘nakeds’ rather than nudes. (22) Robert Hughes’ description of Pearlstein’s work could well describe Antonioni’s project: “Pearlstein’s dispassionate drawing gives the whole mass of the body an analysed presence […]” (23) If we look at Pearlstein’s “Female Nude on a Platform Rocker” or de Andrea’s “Seated Woman”, and compare and contrast them, the former suggests the casually erotic body of a woman playfully preparing to make love: lazily, uncommitedly. And, like Antonioni, we see a master of the deframed image, Pearlstein gives the painting a cropped look that robs us of the woman’s face, forcing so much of the hermeneutic into the hand gesture, or the foot that seems to be erogenously rubbing itself against the wood of the chair. This would be by Berger’s definition undeniably more nude than naked; where de Andrea’s “Seated Woman” suggests the deflated nakedness of a woman reflecting on an affair, but with the emphasis on inner reflection over outer flirtatiousness. Antonioni’s tints capture something usually in-between, as if he wants neither to suggest the full exhilaration of the imminent fling, nor the deflated heaviness of its aftermath. In Antonioni’s utilization of sex and nudity, it is the apocupidic that hangs over the work, this stronger sense of lovelessness not as flirtatiousness, nor as deflated abandonment, but as a human condition of the age.

But what are the tints that can be extracted from this lovelessness? If we think of a brief scene in the early stages of Identification of a Woman, we can pinpoint this nude-naked void. Here Mavi has just got out of the bath and dries herself off. As she curves round to look at her thighs, she says that she’s got cellulite, that she’s young and she shouldn’t have it: “I should be in the flower of my youth and instead …” Niccolò’s off-screen voice insists that you are old when no one loves you. There are a few things worth commenting on here. First, that the scene has no narrative cause and effect. In a previous shot, Mavi has just said that she won’t be coming over to visit him, and the restless Niccolò gets up and looks at his wall, and in the next shot we see Mavi just out of the bath. After Niccolò’s comment, the film cuts to Niccolo again on the phone, agitatedly trying to get in touch with Mavi. Thus, if we’re to locate the scene, we are likely to see it as recollection, and the scene has a curious, performative function if we think of a moment in Antonioni’s earlier Professione: reporter (The Passenger, 1975), where there’s an exchange that goes along the lines of: people disappear all the time; yes, every time someone leaves the room. Mavi might not be in the room but neither has she disappeared: she seems clearly in Niccolò’s consciousness. But maybe there is this sense in many of Antonioni’s films of people disappearing from another’s consciousness when they leave the room, and we might wonder whether part of Mavi’s disappearing act resides in her belief that she can remain in Niccolò’s mind as long as he is obsessed with her very presence or more especially absence – how she can impact on him, not just as a body, but also as spirit.


For so often in Antonioni’s films, we witness characters whose thoughts suggest drift and whose minds are elsewhere. There are all the exchanges between Vittoria and Pierro in L’Eclisse, exchanges that don’t so much suggest awkward silences, for all the silence, but indicate much more thoughts and words that can’t quite settle on the company one is in. It is certainly central to David Hemmings’ Thomas in Blowup, as he constantly allows himself to be distracted by distractions of one form or another. Undeniably, the absent-mindedness in each instance takes a very different form (Vittoria’s neurosis as opposed to Thomas’s novelty junkie fixations on the next curiosity), but each seems consistent with Antonioni’s apocupidic concerns. Now, this isn’t quite the case in Identification of a Woman. Just as we said earlier Mavi may well retreat from the sexual and the relationship with Niccolò because she wants the intangibility of ambiguity over the painful concreteness of the masochistically sexual, so this refusal of the masochistic allows for a certain type of sadism to come through instead. She manages to achieve what is rare in Antonioni: to exist in the mind of another, taking into account the comment from The Passenger and the absent mindedness of so many of Antonioni’s characters.

This also allows us to pinpoint the ontological problem of nudity in Antonioni’s work. That nudity is but one of the many elements in Antonioni’s films that is too materially there, another aspect of matter that creates the fatigue Deleuze so astutely observes. This has nothing, of course, to do with a conventionally moral problem of nudity in films; as we have suggested, Antonioni needs to show nudity to allow his characters to reveal an element of the paradoxical. But it’s as if central to his whole project, to his body of work, is how do we (en)lighten the self, how do we not just take tints from the body, but how can we re-energize the body, how can we find its soul? Thus, when Antonioni says above

it is a difficult age for everything. […] It’s true that people still kill themselves for love, but I am sure that if you investigate deeply the various acts of that kind, one would find many other motivations besides love

he adds, “for example, amongst the difficulties of a couple splitting up, there is doubtless the fact of finding a flat.” (24) This prosaic conclusion to the problem of love seems almost ironic; yet Antonioni’s often dealt with this very practical problem in his own work: Vittoria has to move out of the flat she shares with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) in L’Eclisse, the recently divorced Niccolò returns home to the flat he shared with his former wife and moves around it as if a stranger; in the third episode in Beyond the Clouds, Patricia looks for a new flat at the end of the tale. A flat here though isn’t just prosaic; it’s also a metaphysical problem, a problem of materiality. Are people staying together because of feelings or because of the weight of material reality, whether that is the corporeality of a nude body, or a materiality of bricks and mortar?

There is an intriguing passage in Gottfried Leibniz, where he says, “All forms of substances express the whole universe; but it may be said that brute substances express the world rather than God, while minds express God rather than the world.” Leibniz goes on to say, “Moreover God governs brute substances by the material laws of force, or of the communication of motion, whereas he governs minds by the spiritual laws of justice.” (25) Can we usefully explore this dichotomy without necessarily believing in God? Is one of the problems that Antonioni observes that of the spiritual law of justice in Leibniz’s terms constantly losing ground to the material laws of force? When Patricia seems promptly to settle for another man who has a ready made apartment, or when Giuliana in The Red Desert claims that she can’t readily differentiate objects from subjects: as she says, one’s entitled to “love your husband, love your son, love a job, even a dog … but not husband-son-job-dog-trees-river […]”, there is this sense that the material has drained the energy out of the spirit. When Deleuze suggests we have to scrutinize the body’s tiredness and neurosis, we can add that we need to do so because the bodies are in danger of becoming mechanical. They are no longer spiritually infused but materially motivated. We needn’t believe in Leibniz’s religious principles to share a sense that there can be a useful, provisional separation between the laws of mechanics and the laws of spirit; we need only the notion to find ways to keep the mechanical in its place.

The Red Desert

Now when Giuliana invokes the problem of subjects and objects becoming undifferentiated in the above comment in The Red Desert, this needn’t necessarily be a problem. What could be more utopian than dissolving the conventional categories of subject/object and mind and body, for something fresher and more in keeping, it would seem with the developments of science: in the sort of quantum physics that would dissolve time and space, subject and object as we’ve come to perceive them? But that may be all very well, but that is not the world we live in; it is not the world in which our consciousness has been trained. If Giuliana has arrived at a sort of ‘quantum love’ to counter the apocupidic, it still seems troublesome. It’s as if she has bypassed consciousness, and allowed stray matter to drift into and out of her mind with the minimum control. This is certainly one way to counter the absence of love, the absence of the sort of “‘passion’ of the last century” Antonioni talks of with some fondness and that he sees as unavailable today. However, there is also the chaste love, the sort of spiritual superimposition on the body that leads to no love-making at all. Antonioni’s nude scene and love scenes throughout his career have been like experiments in permutation. We’ve had the cosmic love of Zabriskie Point, the absent-minded lust of Blowup, the intensive, painful sex in Identification of a Woman, the identity-less lovemaking of The Passenger, the hovering hand half-requitingly offered in the opening episode of Beyond the Clouds before the central character backs away, and the spiritual love of God in the film’s final episode. Thus, Antonioni isn’t just taking tints from the body, but also hints from the body’s possibility to love.

Antonioni is not as we’ve said time and again a moralist; but he does seem to want to know how we might inject spirit back into all these exhausted bodies. When we watch his work it might be useful to think of this; to think how Antonioni couches that Leibnizian problem of the laws of the body and the laws of the mind. If Antonioni might be defined as having a problem with promiscuity, then again that shouldn’t be seen as a moral comment. It should be seen much more as a problem of physics, as a curious variation on the first law of thermodynamics where “heat is a form of energy. This implies that no engine can produce work indefinitely without a permanent source of heat, so that perpetual motion machines cannot be made.” (26) Antonioni gives to his unclothed bodies, and also the often clothed bodies of his protagonists, this sense of an absence of heat, an absence of a belief in love that can re-energize, can redefine our emotional needs. If there is a side to Antonioni that seems to admire chastity, evident in the first and last episodes of Beyond the Clouds, for example, then again it shouldn’t be perceived morally. It should be seen instead perhaps as an attempt to give something back to the laws of the spirit, as if for too long the body has been a machine incapable of producing the energy with which to fuel it.


  1. Sam Rohdie, Antonioni (London: BFI, 1990), pp. 121-2.
  2. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (London: Paladin, 1984), p. 91.
  3. Ibid, p. 92.
  4. Rohdie, p. 124.
  5. Mark Cousins, The Story of Film (London: Pavilion, 2004), p. 290.
  6. Michelangelo Antonioni, quoted in the preface to Anonioni, translated by William Arrowsmith, That Bowling Alley on the Tibe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. ix.
  7. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1977), p. 54.
  8. Ibid, p. 48.
  9. Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (London: Pelican, 1979), p. 353.
  10. Rohdie, p. 118.
  11. David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), p. 121.
  12. Michel Foucault, Paul Rabinow (Ed.), Ethics (London: Penguin, 1997), p. 150.
  13. Wim Wenders, My Time with Antonioni (London: Faber, 2000), p. 17.
  14. Ibid, p. 28.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Richard Kelly, Edinburgh Film Festival Catalogue, No. 53, p. 138.
  17. Pauline Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (London: Arena, 1987), p. 24.
  18. Robert Benayoun, Positif, quoted in Don Ranvaud, “Chronicle of a Career”, The Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1983, p. 61.
  19. Jean-Paul Sartre, Robert Denoon Cumming (Ed.), The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 363.
  20. Michelangelo Antoninioni, quoted in Ranvaud, p. 61.
  21. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (London: The Athlone Press, 1994), p. 205.
  22. David Piper, The Illustrated History of Art (London: Hamlyn, 1994), p. 500.
  23. Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New (Loondon: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p. 420.
  24. Michelangelo Antonioni, quoted in Ranvaud, p. 61.
  25. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Philosophical Writings (London: J. M. Dent, 1973), p. 73.
  26. Alan Bullock, Oliver Stallybrass and Stephen Trombley, The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (London: Fontana, 1989), p. 859.

About The Author

Tony McKibbin teaches Short Courses at The University of Edinburgh and writes for various magazine and journals. His website can be found at tonymckibbin.com, and some of the material from the website is in book form: On and About Film and Other Essays; Craig Dunain and Other Stories.

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