A searching film, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman (Identificazione di una donna) is the work of a master who began in the 1940s as a documentarian. Free of affectation, almost magically keyed to the immediacy of the moment, it’s full of authentic mystery. Resistant to explaining what does or doesn’t happen in terms of either a situational context or the pasts of its characters, the film becomes a sharp test of our Keatsian negative capability; secure in our seats, we nevertheless are somewhat cast adrift. Like his L’avventura (1960) or The Passenger (1975), Antonioni’s Identification gives us a delicious sense of adventure.
There’s a fractured story of sorts. Niccolo (Tomas Milian, wonderfully, at times maddeningly even), the central character, is a fortyish filmmaker. Like Antonioni, he doesn’t think of himself as an intellectual artist—rather, as an explorer, a discoverer of sights and sounds and rhythms of experience. Current destination: a film identifying his “ideal woman,” whoever she may be. As anyone familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) knows, though, this particular aim can end up plunging one perilously into the abyss of self. Is there some other film Niccolo could be making now? A science-fiction film, his little nephew suggests. Ah, something out there rather than inside himself. It takes Niccolo a while, but that’s where he ends up going. In the meantime, Antonioni sticks with Niccolo here on earth.
The “ideal woman”-thing is, after all, a bad idea. Niccolo’s marriage has ended. In the course of this film, two consecutive love affairs of his will meet their demise. All three relationships, then, locate the shaky ground on which Niccolo’s fatuous notions of “ideal womanhood” wobble. Needless to say, Niccolo isn’t giving a second thought to his being the “ideal man.” He knows damn well he can’t measure up. The trouble is, neither can anyone else.
Women, it seems, must always disappoint Niccolo for an unsurprising reason: he is always disappointing them. Partly this is the result of his great difficulty at focusing in the present moment with the woman he is with. Mavi (Daniela Silverio, who has an unshakable look) has detached herself from her family; despite this, Niccolo obsesses on them. This is especially true regarding Mavi’s stepfather, who Niccolo is convinced is behind anonymous threats he has received. With Ida (Christine Boisson, in a great performance), Niccolo obsesses on the past—on Mavi, who may be a stand-in here for the wife whom Niccolo has lost. Space in the first instance, and time in the second, then, seem to undermine these two relationships of his. Therefore, his taking up at the last his nephew’s innocent suggestion to make a dumb Star Wars-level piece of escapism, which finds Niccolo (on film) star-trekking toward (the newspaper says) a dangerously expanding sun, can be seen as his corrective way of jolting himself out of space and time—and into the moment.
Both Mavi and Ida are younger than Niccolo. Though a renegade, Mavi is an aristocrat; Ida is a member of a stage company. (Impressing us with Niccolo’s solipsistic tendencies, we never see Ida at work.) A national celebrity of sorts, Niccolo falls somewhere in between. He is uncomfortable with Mavi because of their class difference; a party sequence highlights his unease among the upper crust. With Ida, his bugaboo is their difference in age. Sexually ferocious, Mavi rejuvenates Niccolo; but, however endearing he finds it, Ida’s youthfulness helps him to feel his years. Niccolo can’t quite compete with the boy he was fifteen or twenty years ago—nor can he compete, it turns out, with the boy whose baby Ida learns she is carrying. In one way or another, then, Niccolo doesn’t quite “fit” in his own life—a feeling that the failure of his marriage (his fault, his own sister opines) and a too-reserved relationship with his sister’s son also attest to.
Antonioni’s film—a near masterpiece—explores Niccolo’s difficulty at finding himself in his own life. It’s about, then, being lost in one’s own life, as if in a fog, when in fact what one hopes to be able to do is to have one’s life—one’s experience in the moment; the sum of one’s experiences—locate oneself. I will state the same thing a third way, adding to the description: Identification of a Woman is about being, or feeling, divorced from the meaning of one’s life, if “meaning” there be, partly the result of overcrowding space in an effort to overload the present, or of obsessing on the past, in either case attempting to bring “meaning” in as a way of compensating for the fact that the whole of one’s life, which could bring perspective and reveal the import of any given moment, remains unknown. As Woody Allen, a student of Antonioni, would do in his Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Antonioni concludes that it’s better to relax into the moment, filling it with experience, than to overload it with interpretation or borrowed content. As an artist who is committed to process (such as what’s necessary to realize a project), however, he knows that this ideal solution, so easy to posit (especially in the midst of European existentialism), must overmatch an endless series of yearnings, impulses and imperatives that contest and contradict it. Rumor to the contrary, Antonioni is only human. Relax into the moment? You try doing it.
Mavi and Ida struggle in the same quandary as do Antonioni and Niccolo, his partial stand-in. Mavi has detached herself from her society roots; this casts her somewhat adrift—into the anxious, restless, dissatisfied mode that characterizes so many Antonioni characters. (In this regard, Antonioni is the most Tennysonian of filmmakers.) Mavi’s bisexuality—Mavi eventually leaves Niccolo for a woman—is still another way she doesn’t quite “fit in,” and the pained, nearly regretful look that she, from the window of the apartment she shares with her current (lesbian) lover, casts at her lost male love as he leaves after a final visit suggests she may never “fit in” anywhere, in any kind of relationship. No matter with whom she is, in fact, Mavi impresses us as a solitary, someone who in some sense is always alone. A gloomy secret of the past seems to weigh into her present—a secret perhaps involving a sexual encounter with her obsessive stepfather, which to keep hidden from her mother, if this speculation of mine is warranted, she has had to bury deep in herself. In various ways, then, Mavi “hides”; she is an elusive soul, even a lost one, long before she just disappears on Niccolo, prompting his search for her—a search reminiscent of Claudio’s for Anna in L’avventura.
And Ida, too, is elusive. In her case the cause is her emotional honesty, which, hard on others, has her, also, ill “fitting in.” Thus she finds “gypsy” employment in the theater, which provides her with ironic cover for her truthfulness—acting, after all, is lying about who you are—even as it confirms for us her dilemma, since acting, also, provides a circuitous, and generally benign, noncontentious and uncensorable means for truth-telling. Too much honesty can be uncontainable. Ida may be “becoming” other characters in order to deposit in them the risky overflow—a “versatility” possibly related to Mavi’s class duplicitousness and sexual self-division.
Among the most beautiful in color that I have seen (the cinematographer, Carlo di Palma, worked with Antonioni on Il deserto rosso, 1964, and Blowup, 1966), Antonioni’s film contains two great set-pieces, each identified with one of the women. To elude whoever is tailing him in the city, Niccolo and Mavi take a motor trip into the country, where they get lost, and stuck, in an immense fog (which, by the way, would inspire a lovely passage in Allen’s wonderful Radio Days, 1987, also lensed by di Palma). By providing them with a kind of protective cover, this fog releases the couple’s worst mutual behavior—so much so, in fact, that the fog seems a massive projection of the anxiety and ambivalence that characterize their relationship. On the other hand, when Ida accompanies Niccolo to Venice on holiday, the other great set-piece seems to evoke this alternative couple’s stability and shared contentment. But it turns. On the water, in a canoe, Ida and Niccolo find themselves in a vast floating fog, the measured sound of lapping water adding to the melancholy to which the lovers differently respond: she, with her whole spirit; he, analytically. The “solid” relationship sways; Ida and Niccolo float apart, together. Back at their hotel, Ida learns by phone of her pregnancy, and the relationship drowns. I don’t believe that Niccolo can’t bear being father to someone else’s child; rather, he may not be able to live with someone else’s past—Ida’s, or the child’s father’s. Truly he thought he had freed himself from such backward obsessiveness by discovering Mavi’s whereabouts and current lifestyle; this indeed had revitalized his commitment to Ida. But now some boy’s baby has taken him back into the past—and this time, rather than his own, the past of someone he hasn’t met or wants to meet. And into Ida’s past—the past of one who seemed too young to have a past.
What a joyous tonic Antonioni’s Identification is to all the strident, empty stylizing, sociologizing, politicizing and manipulation that take up so many screens nowadays. Here is a film concerned instead with matter most humane and urgent and, even where solemn, both fresh and refreshing: while living our lives, how we conceive of those lives in order to understand ourselves and, through this understanding, others. Antonioni isn’t too interested in the couples per se (in frame after frame Niccolo, especially, becomes almost invisible—perhaps Antonioni’s reaction to Niccolo’s solipsism); what matters more is how mysterious pressures invisibly weigh in on these characters, leaving Antonioni and us to wonder whether our own lives, too, are an elusive fine thread whose course is best picked up somewhere unexpected, uncharted, somewhere far, far beyond our familiar sensible or emotional galaxy, in the direction of the sun’s perfect (if dangerous) clarity—somewhere beyond the clouds.
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