A Serene Nihilism

Le Nouvel Adam no. 11; June 1967.

Antonioni bores me to death. But when a mediocre or overrated filmmaker makes a good film (or the opposite), I say so frankly. I practice fair-play, even when it comes to tennis.

Hence this article on Blow-Up, which, in my opinion, is one of the rare defensible Antonionis, along with The Red Desert and Identification of a Woman.

The reason for this amazing miracle: this filmmaker is really at ease only in colour film.

Blow-Up, Antonioni’s second English film after his sketch for I Vinti (1952) and his second great colour film, is a series of images, of moments, where a number of important things sometimes happen, but which don’t seem to have been chosen. We get the impression that they could’ve been different, that it could all take place as much in Buenos Aires or Paris as in London—like in Julio Cortázar’s Les Fils de la vierge, the original novella the film is based on—without much change. Blow-Up stretches the last ten minutes of Eclipse (1961), which came at the end of a story and forgot all about it, to over two hours.

What’s the connection? It’s a famous photographer from London—photography is a means of combatting nothingness, wrote Cortázar. Antonioni seems to have chanced upon his hero at the beginning of the film, but he accompanies him until the end. Then begins a semblance of a plot, first presented like one of the film’s many moments quickly abandoned for others, so as to not make us wary: he photographs a pair of lovers in a park. The woman tries to get the negatives from him by any means, without clearly-defined reasons. He makes blow-ups after blow-ups, observes them, seems to discover the traces of an attempted murder, comes back, finds a corpse, returns to the place, finds nothing. Every episode remains very chaotic, every blow-up a little fuzzier, every meaning is destroyed by the following one right away. Dream or reality? The answer seems—there are only semblances in this universe—to be of no importance. Visually, the film is bright, but its logical meaning slips irreversibly into obscurity. Every time a character does something, tries to love another, loves another, there is no rhyme or reason.

It’s the death blow to psychology, the perfect vegetative film. There is no certainty, not even that the previous certainty has been undone. It’s really a supreme disdain for meaning, quite like in Cortázar. Antonioni has borrowed only two ideas from him, the couple caught by surprise and the blow-up, but he takes his nihilist spirit along. The importance given to physical love could stir discussions about materialism. But materialism itself is a form of affirmation. It’s chance rather than desire that seems to drive relationships here. And dream and reality are always on the same footing, except at the end, which is more clearly unreal: masked characters play tennis without a ball while pretending to have one. The photographer agrees to play along, go collect the ball fallen outside the court and throw it back.

Nothing exists, but we must act as though something exists. At the end of this sequence that concludes and summarizes the film, this gesture, a little too meaningful, diminishes the general impression of absence. It short-changes the viewer and especially the critic too easily. Blow-up is a film that shouldn’t have ended and it was necessary for it to give the impression that it will not. But the film as a whole, following Borges and Cortázar, belongs to what I’d call the “Midi fantastique” as opposed to “Minuit fantastique”, a fantasy based on light and not on darkness, on the mundane and not on old tricks of the trade.

The difference from Antonioni’s previous films, from L’Avventura or The Red Desert, is the serenity. The characters in the earlier films were tormented and constantly spoke about being tormented. The hero of Blow-up is silent. He is overworked, he isn’t tormented by anything profound, and the filmmaker even less so. This is what distinguishes him from Godard, whose approach Blow-up evokes to an extent. Everything takes place calmly here.

The film is relaxing, pleasant to watch. Perhaps it’s an ablation of conscience or alienation, but if it’s alienation, it’s not so bad. What surprises us is that the hero and the filmmaker can remain indifferent and calm before so many oddities and enigmas, so much rage. The rhythm, the colours, the atmosphere contribute to give the impression of acceptance and appeasement. Antonioni makes us hear the wind in the forest like we never have. He brings out the multiple tints and settings of the most technical of modern lives through the photographer’s studio and apartment. These tints are so new to the screen that, under the shock, we aren’t able to decide whether Blow-Up is a beautiful film. It’s a film that’s evidently very rich on a plastic level and it’s this aspect, I think, that accounts for its enormous commercial success in the United States, with its picturesque, stereotypical images of contemporary England. London life in summarized in clichés worthy of a vulgar tourist.

But Antonioni seems to have wanted to say, most of all, that there’s nothing beneath it all, and to not crank up the commercial aspect of the film, in which the public can get caught even though they are not harnessed. Blow-Up’s visual style holds another pitfall: it’s likely to keep from those who admire it the most difficult and most important aspect of the film, contained in its approach and its meaninglessness. It would be a serious misinterpretation, a serious “mis-non-interpretation” rather, to believe that the film is an exercise in style.


[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

La Dolce Vita (1960) (aka The Sweet Life)
Federico Fellini

“You are the first woman on the first day of creation. You are mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, earth, home”



Whenever there is a discussion on Fellini’s ultimate masterpiece, the inevitable finalists are 8½ (1963) and La Dolce Vita (1960). Critics are thoroughly polarized on the former with Joseph Bennett (Kenyon Review) even calling it “The worst film made by a major Italian film director”! As for La Dolce Vita, it receives a much warmer response and is hailed as Fellini’s magnum opus almost unanimously. Along with Akira Kurosawa’s phenomenal Yojimbo (1961), it had become the zeitgeist of the 60’s as far as foreign films were considered.

La Dolce Vita takes us through the life of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) as a string of seven episodes, all of which start late in the evening and end at dawn the next day. Marcello encounters various situations and people including a one-night stand with lover Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), a fraud congregation revolving around a holy vision, a tantalizing night with an actress Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a night out with his almost-alien father, a amateurishly done orgy, his relationship with his role model friend Steiner and a high-class party where he is totally out of place yet nobody cares. There is also a brief meeting with a pretty young girl at a beach resort who appears to be the only unsullied entity in the whole film.

Through his various encounters, Marcelo becomes increasingly aware of the vacuous style of his life and the meaninglessness of his existence. He knows he is straddling two worlds – one of reality which, his heart knows is moral, and another raised by his fantasies built around the fake lives of celebrities. Yet, he willingly prefers the latter and opts not to “cross the stream”, unlike Zampano of La Strada (1954) who turns contrite for his brutality. Much credit must go for Mastroianni for handling such a superficial yet complex character with such care. He takes the centre stage in some scenes and sidelines himself in others, all at the right places.

For followers of Fellini, La Dolce Vita may come as quite a big surprise. First off, it does have elements of neo-realism in it. Years after being panned for “betraying his neo-realistic roots”, Fellini came back with this film that included both his fantastic imagery and realistic backdrop. Also, more importantly, the film is devoid of the “Fellini magic” and is wrapped up in an atmosphere of depression and hopelessness, uncharacteristic of Fellini. Additionally, the themes handled in the film are closer in spirit to the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially Blowup (1966) and L’Avventura (1960), both of which trace the empty lives of humans in modern times. Considering these anomalies, it is remarkable to note that this quantum leap for Fellini has come immediately after the hugely successful The Nights of Cabiria (1957).

Facts apart, La Dolce Vita till date remains one of the most memorable cinematic journeys ever. The opening sequence, the Jesus statue being flown by a helicopter over the modern day Rome, can make the top five opening sequences any day (8½ can make it too!). The classic scene at the Fontana di Trevi made Anita Ekberg a craze around the world. Not to mention the irritating yet hilarious paparazzi who made it into the big screen for the first time. They not only provided a new word for the language, but also changed the perception of the public about the private lives of the celebrities.

Though a small section of viewers may find the three hour runtime of the film too long, the deluge of restless happenings and the episodic fashion of events keep one hooked irrespective of the age in which one watches the film. La Dolce Vita may not be a good starting point to get acquainted with the works of Fellini, but is an extremely rewarding film in its own right, especially if you are looking for entertainment as well as rumination.