Michaelangelo Antonioni is regarded by many as one of the leading lights of post-war European art cinema, whose films challenged and forever changed the language and conventions of narrative films. He emerged from a strong neo-realist tradition in Italy; with its strict rules and codes of portraying working class truth that included a documentary visual style, non-professional actors, limited editing and an emphasis on human emotion. The films were melodramatic with clear political ideologies and they embraced an overt sentimentality that strongly moralised the films characters, situations and landscapes. Antonioni made a stark departure from this. His films created an overwhelming sense of ambiguity; following middle and upper-class characters as they drift, aimless and nameless, through post-war Italy. Almost dismissive of the narrative events unfolding around them, the films explore the existential ennui (what has been dubbed ‘Antonionennui’) they experience, yet still retracts from ever moralising them. Many of his early films announce a high-concept mystery narrative but it’s never the focus; his films aren’t so much about an event or necessarily about anything at all. They capture a mood and a mindset and the space in which that inhabits.
This ambiguous and diminished narrative also rejected the standard and traditional Hollywood formula, which is why his debut feature film Story of a Love Affair is so interesting. As is noticeable from his latter work, with each film he makes he is always questioning his last step and some of his films even feel like a response to the last. In his debut it is clear he is working through his doubts and issues with genre, as his later films seem to abandon the idea completely. At surface level, Story of a Love Affair has all the traditional trappings of a film noir. Set in the modern, glittering and haughty Milan and focusing on the disaffected post-war bourgeoisie, it stars Lucia Bosè as Paola Fontana; a young woman married to an aging wealthy industrialist (who was made even richer after the war) and is living a life of disquieted luxury, in one scene the elaborate and bright white fur and jewellery she wears for a night at the theatre make her physically glow on the empty and cold black and white streets. When her jealous and paranoid husband hires a private investigator to look into her past, it’s revealed that a friend from her school days had died and Paola disappeared, and then resurfaced in Milan and married into money. This piece of information sets in place the film’s mystery that, rather than being central to the film’s narrative, is an undercurrent that allows for the film’s exploration of the ambiguity of both people and place. This is what would become Antonioni’s signature and is most prominent in L’Avventura; there is a mystery that is announced with almost indifference that seems to become less important as the film progresses but is always relevant and is consistently felt in the characters relationship with each other, and the space between them.
The detective’s snooping inadvertently leads to Paola, unfulfilled and restless, reuniting with a worried former lover Guido (Massimo Girotti) and they begin an affair. With their anxieties about the past and the private detective, who they think is investigating the death of their friend, constantly following them; their affair is pure film noir. Paola is the picture of a femme fatale: beautiful, stauesque, captivating and both powerful and completely powerless. Yet she still evades a moralisation that was so key to other narrative films at the time, even her husband is neither disliked for his controlling behaviour, nor sympathised for what happens to him. Antonioni maintains this ambiguity, born from examining Italy’s post-war position and a certain moral coldness of the bourgeoisie, thanks to his incredible aesthetic control that is observant and distant. He demoralises the film entirely visually, with medium shots during conversations rather than the staple Hollywood and neo-realist melodramatic close-ups that foreground the characters emotions as the most relevant information the film can announce. The camera wanders unexpectedly with complex and varied camera movements and chooses what it focuses on unconventionally, challenging our perspective. It is usually wandering through Antonioni’s modernist landscape which he always frames his characters within and which they are always relevant to.
Although utilised to a different effect, the mood being driven by the harsh industrialised black and white landscape is a strong neo-realist tradition that, in Story of a Love Affair, serves to create more meaning and evoke different anxieties than that of a Hollywood noir. And this is vital to Antonioni’s films, his landscapes and the portrayal of them usually say more about what he’s exploring than his characters, dialogue or plot do. His long takes show humans adrift in an expansive landscape, often caught between the new and old, grasping for meaning that isn’t there in an increasingly alienating modern world. The opening credits show small people engulfed by the city-scape and the expansive gaze sets Milan Cathedral within the world of modern consumerism with queues outside shops and fast cars flying past them. This sets the film within the context of a world of rapid change and is highlighted by both the characters’ unstable and fleeting emotions that are never explained and barely even seem understood by the characters themselves, and the ambiguous and open endings. Antonioni is known for the open endings of his films and in his debut tries it out in a subtler way. This also shows a world of constant change in which nothing is certain and everything is ambiguous; the characters, the relationships, the past. Where the most dramatic action takes place off camera and therefore becomes symbolic, abstract and veiled in an uncertainty that is never cleared. It shows an instability in the post-war psyche that seemed unavoidable.
Although understandably still working through his artistic relationship with Italian neo-realism and Hollywood genres, and taking inspiration from both, Antonioni’s debut is still a bold break with the constraints of traditional narrative films. Story of a Love Affair shows a director interested in the modern world, in mystery and ambiguity, and the disaffected upper classes. Although his films have been criticised by some for being too insular and too bourgeois, they forever changed the way people viewed what film could be and do and his debut is a clear indicator of a director breaking down the film language with an aim of rebuilding it entirely.
Story of a Love Affair is available for the first time on Blu-Ray in the UK and on VOD from July 27th courtesy of CultFilms
by Madeleine Sinclair
Madeleine Sinclair @madeleinia
Madeleine (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.