Don’t read this if you ever plan to see any Antonioni films. Wait until after since Lane readily spoils the plot of many major films here.
The films of Michelangelo Antonioni and “Deep Water.”
by Anthony Lane August 27, 2007
A man and a woman go for a walk in Turin. They have just made love in the afternoon, or, at any rate, spent time in a hotel room, talking about how difficult it is to find time to make love, or to talk. Simply to get out feels like a liberation. It must have been raining, because the street is damp, and the air is a milky haze. We see the pair strolling hand in hand toward a lamppost. She passes to the right of the post, he to the left; their locked hands bump against it, uncouple, and pull apart. The spell is broken. Nonetheless, for a moment, in the light of early evening, life was sweet.
The scene comes from “The Girlfriends” (1955), a film by Michelangelo Antonioni, and it is worth revisiting, because anyone who knew little of the director—who perhaps learned of him only when he died, on July 30th, at ninety-four—could be forgiven for believing, on the strength of the obituaries, that here was a merchant of the miserable. The impression delivered even by those who admired him is not just that Antonioni films were bleak but that the bleakness was unleavened; worse still, that the man himself was above all an intellectual, who happened to choose film as the medium in which to vent the results of his cogitation. Neither of these judgments is accurate, and, taken together, they are guaranteed to send novices scurrying for cover. All I can say is: hold your nerve, go online, order a stash of Antonioni, lie back with a grappa, and stare.
You will still be missing plenty, because his work
demands to be seen on the big screen, every bit as vehemently as “Ben-Hur,” and
one hopes that the repertory houses will pay homage before long. Even with a
wide-screen TV, and the ravishing, polka-dot-perfect print that is available on
Criterion DVD, what will Antonioni’s most acclaimed film, “L’Avventura,” look
like in your living room? Will television not crunch and clutter the final
shot—a man half-slumped on a bench, a woman standing next to him, and the
menace of Mt. Etna in the distance—and thus deprive you of its serene and
Will the movie freak you out, as it did the audience at
Even now, I wonder what spooked the cats. They may
have mistrusted the sequence set in a depopulated modern village, all cubes and
arches, but nobody who had ever inspected a de Chirico painting would be taken
aback. As for the plot, which sees a beautiful woman go missing from a volcanic
island on a pleasure trip, only for her lover to seduce her best friend, there
was a sheen of robotic amorality about these wealthy
folk, but nothing that would have caused Bette Davis to raise more than an
eyebrow. (Why do so many masterpieces, including Rossellini’s “
This is not to say that the Italian was a novelist
manqué. He was, to a degree, ill served by the hothouse of philosophical debate
in which his films of the nineteen-sixties were dissected and swooned over. I
am at once jealous of moviegoers who saw them in
If Hitchcock’s tombstone bore the word “suspense,”
what would we engrave on Antonioni’s? “Alienation,” probably, yet that is a
word forever applied to the films, not spoken within them. You may
disagree with his vision of the sexes fighting to make connections that endure,
as opposed to mere spasms of desire (avventura
means not just an adventure but a fling), but there is no denying the sharp,
concrete form in which that vision was set—actual concrete, if you remember
Jeanne Moreau, in the role of an unloved wife, walking through city streets in
“La Notte” (1961), sun-hot buildings frowning down upon her. And so the
paradoxes accrue: sex solves nothing for Antonioni, yet somehow his films,
blending tactility with froideur, remain a tease and a turn-on, and, for
someone insistent on human solitude, he was awfully skilled at handling group
situations—look at the beach party in “The Girlfriends,” or the search party
climbing rocks in “L’Avventura.” He was an urbanist, yet few can match his eye
for landscape or his nose for weather. Just ask Woody Allen, who borrowed his
cameraman, Carlo Di Palma, and asked him to reproduce, for “Radio Days,” the
same enveloping fog that he had conjured for Antonioni in “Identification of a
Woman” (1982). In short, this great director, whose characters are said to be
glazed with spiritual death, forged something intensely alive, as if celluloid
were as strokable as skin. Think of Maria Schneider in “The Passenger” (1975), kneeling in the back seat of a speeding
convertible, turning around, and revelling in the
dappled, tree-bowered road that unspools behind her—what finer way to flee your
past? Think even of Antonioni at his harshest, in “
There is much in “Deep Water” that would have lured Antonioni: a secluded soul, a hostile sea, and a horror of what lies on land. This new documentary, directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell, tells the story of Donald Crowhurst. He was an Englishman, born in India in 1932, and a pink-cheeked enthusiast, yet the images of him in “Deep Water” show something distant and dissatisfied in his gaze (not uncommon for those raised in the last gasp of imperial rule), and he came from a generation that kept its more potent feelings stowed safely away belowdecks. A weekend sailor, who ran an electrical company, he came to prominence in 1968, as one of a handful of men vying to complete the first single-handed non-stop circumnavigation of the world. Some contestants, like the eventual winner, Robin Knox-Johnston, set off well before the departure deadline of October 31st; Crowhurst left with just hours to spare. His wife and children came on board to say goodbye, but it was he who seemed like the child—a clever boy all at sea.
After less than a month, it became clear that Crowhurst’s trimaran would not last the course. She was leaking, and he was bailing by hand. His pride would not let him quit, but he could scarcely press ahead: was there another solution? I will reveal no more, except to say that his mind was blown far more violently off course than his vessel. We have some idea of the maelstrom, because Crowhurst recorded his actions on cine-film, his words on audiotape, and his fathomless fears in a log. In its calm and expert way, “Deep Water” confirms all the mythical terrors that lurk in our dreams of the sea, and the best person to watch it with would be Melville. He would cry out for Crowhurst, and for the Frenchman Bernard Moitessier—a fellow-adventurer in the race, and worthy of a film unto himself. Like Crowhurst, he was driven to extremes, and his onboard footage of his daily tasks shows a creature of pure sinew and purpose, more like an anatomist’s drawing of a man than like the real thing.
The first time I saw “Deep Water,” the trace of
mystery in the Crowhurst affair gave the movie a kick of excitement. On second
viewing, with a queasy foreknowledge of what was to come, I found it
intolerably sad. What had seemed a hearty feat of the gentleman amateur (he set
sail in sweater and tie) was now drained of comic bathos, leaving Crowhurst
stranded not as the victim of mishap but as someone swept toward a predictable
destiny. For further proof, seek out the book “The Strange Last Voyage of
Donald Crowhurst,” by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, with its horrifying peek
into Crowhurst’s school reports, written in
 Are you kidding? Novice movie nerds love that intellectual shit. I don’t know but have you by any chance read The Internet?
 Wait, who has just deprived whom?
 Seriously, can I answer this?
 F.U. Dude, people are reading this? Do you not care that you’re ruining the film? This is a magazine not a bookshelf book.
 No. I still haven’t seen this film and I plan to. So here is where I get off. I will now go look up de Chirico on Wikipedia.