Like many a Michelangelo Antonioni film, 1982’s Identification of a Woman revolves around the sudden presence and equally abrupt disappearance of the female form. This one idea spins thinly veiled themes (isolation, guilt, lust) around in circles, with the film favoring a disjointed storyline where the mood of any given scene takes precedence over the coherence of the whole. Within Antonioni’s frayed narrative, Rome is less a glamorous location than a wet blanket of drab colors and wallpaper patterns, ornate iconography, and restless bodies inhabiting potentially menacing locations. The city’s cracked architectural façades and endless streets provide a fittingly textured cinematic avenue for Antonioni’s main character, Niccoló (Tomás Milián), to endlessly (and often silently) roam, sometimes with a woman on his arm, and at other moments all alone, never ceasing to ponder the weight of his own desolation and loneliness.
Considering how much Identification of a Woman values silence, it’s fascinating that in the opening moments Niccoló can’t even enter his own house without setting off a deafening house alarm. As the loud shriek pierces through the space, Niccoló mutters to himself about his now ex-wife’s “god damn paranoia,” attempting to reconfigure this once shared living space into a personal den where he can begin planning his next professional venture: a film production. It turns out Niccoló is a successful director looking for inspiration, or as he puts it to many of the sexy young women he meets, “looking for a face.” This search for visual allure mixed with a newfound freedom from the constrictions of marriage makes Niccoló a constant observer of the female profile; skin, hair-color, and body shape are all equally important to him. Eventually, this lust-posing-as-research drives him into the arms of two women: Mavi (Daniela Silverio), a disgraced aristocrat whose cropped blond hair and cold demeanor allow her to cut through crowds like a shark, and Ida (Christine Boisson), a brown-haired actress who offers her lover far more vulnerability and yearning.
Much of Identification of a Woman’s virtues stem from how Antonioni perforates the narrative depending on which woman Niccoló seduces. Tone means everything to this film, and for the first hour, Mavi’s upper-crust connections take the couple to a few sharply inclusive dinner parties that feel equal parts Buñuel and Resnais. During these intensely hostile sequences, Niccoló is physically and ideologically compartmentalized, judged by his wealthy hosts’ elitist attitudes while Antonioni’s subtly moving camera documents the unease. No matter what room he enters, there’s a pressure of purpose and status that never lets up. As a result, Niccoló tiptoes through spaces as if he just pooped in the punch bowl, feeling incessantly watched like he a was self-conscious character in one of his own films. But is this feeling deserved or completely fabricated by Niccoló’s own stifled perspective?
The extreme sexual passion and inclement distrust Niccoló and Mavi share during these sequences eventually comes to a head in a daring set piece that takes place on a country road shrouded in thick fog. As the couple argues inside their cramped car, both individually venturing out into the menacing curtain of white at one point or another, sound design becomes an integral device in Antonioni’s meticulous pacing. The rustling of leaves, the distant hum of a car engine, and faint footsteps from beyond the frame are all key components here. This heightened sequence feels like a kindred spirit to the early scene in L’Avventura when Sandro and Claudia silently traverse the island terrain searching for Ana after she has vanished off the face of the Earth. Except in this instance, Antonioni strips even more cinematic information away, establishing the character’s inability to literally and figuratively see a few feet in all directions.
Like the mysteriously disappeared Ana in L’Avventura, Mavi vanishes from Identification of a Woman, only popping up late the film to prove the impact she has had on Niccoló’s life. Still, this jarring shift fits with Niccoló’s growing obsession toward portions of the female form as opposed to a fully realized woman. When Niccoló finally meets Ida at a local theater production, it’s a jarring shift back to a form of cause-and-effect logic Antonioni often avoids, a literal translation of whatever imaginary figments have been dominating his psyche for the film’s duration. But the overlap between fantasy and reality is often an issue of perspective and emotional candor, and at times it seems Ida, who’s much less dangerous and confrontational than Mavi yet equally perplexing, could be an exaggeration of Niccoló’s wild imagination. She may exist, just not in this specifically realized form.
Identification of a Woman’s final act poses the threat of adult responsibility on Niccoló, a moral situation concerning Ida that eventually works itself out via some truly strange genre bending on Antonioni’s part. In the end, it’s Ida’s words that cement the director’s indictment of Niccoló’s callous wandering: “What does it mean to be good together?” Of course, this is a question Niccoló sees in cinematic terms, a pairing based on the way a woman grooves through his specifically realized mise-en-scène. Of course, Ida’s talking about an experience based in the reality of adult responsibility and culpability, something Niccoló has never needed to address until now. However powerful their chemistry may be, these two characters are living on completely different planets.
The 1080p transfer is nicely rendered, capturing the faded color schemes so essential to the film's treatment of disillusionment and isolation. At times there seems to be a red tint to some of the imagery, as if the color balance was swayed a bit too much in one direction. But the extended sequence in the fog really shows the virtues of Criterion's transfer, which meshes the overarching white of the weather with the small details in the car and the character's clothing. The soundtrack is monaural, so it doesn't sound as crisp as some of Criterion's DTS packages, but there are only a few instances where the dialogue dims in volume. Overall, the audio is well balanced to capture the meandering tone of the film.
A disappointing package as a whole. Only the film's theatrical trailer and expected booklet featuring an informative essay on Identification of a Woman by critic John Powers along with an Antonioni interview conducted by Gideon Bachman.
Traversing the frayed cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni can be a confounding and immersive experience, and his late-period melodramatic oddity Identification of a Woman is a perfect example why.