After a series of striking documentary short subjects, Michelangelo Antonioni made his first feature, Cronaca di un Amore (Story of a Love Affair), a loose, neutral treatment of a seemingly standard noir subject. Cronaca is much like Robert Bresson’s early Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne—you can detect the future abstract style of the director underneath the conventional material. With these two films, a new type of reflective cinema was born, dedicated equally to the interior lives of actor “models” and the obscure surfaces of the photographed world.
Paola (Lucia Bosé) has moved up a class by marrying a rich, crooked industrialist (Ferdinando Sarmi). Her husband is curious about his wife’s background, so he has a private detective delve into her past, and we learn of a mysterious death years ago involving Paola and a boy named Guido (Massimo Girotti). Lower-class car salesman Guido and fur-swathed Paola reconnect and she eventually decides that they should do away with her husband. “You think it’s easy to kill a man?” asks Guido, but dark-eyed Paola is having none of it: “You fought in the war!” she exclaims.
In many ways, Cronaca is more difficult than Antonioni’s later films because it does seem to promise a narrative structure, yet it continually frustrates our expectations. It’s a bit like Ossessione meets L’Avventura. The attention to social class in Cronaca is as intense as Antonioni’s already piercing observation of rain-slicked streets, dead black trees, and desolate modern architecture. Dialogue drones on endlessly and rapidly, and this is made more alienating due to the canned, entirely post-dubbed sound. It’s extremely difficult to follow the film scene by scene; the camera wanders away from people and makes radical choices in what it wants to look at and linger over. What at first seems like clumsiness finally falls away and something highly original takes its place: an ambiguous meditation on the emptiness of upwardly mobile modern life. In other words, Antonioni takes care of the secular tortures of the affluent damned while Bresson handles the religious purification and even worse suffering of the holy poor.
The acting is inept on the surface, but Antonioni gets what he’s always after: insecure non-acting (he even managed to get this from such flashy personalities as Vanessa Redgrave and Jack Nicholson). Bose’s exquisite, vulpine sociopath, with her sculptured cheekbones and aimless movements, is a dark dry run for Monica Vitti’s yearning Antonioni heroines of the ‘60s. This isn’t really a love affair: the leads have zero chemistry, but that’s the whole point. Antonioni’s films are about the absence of love and the way people foolishly grope for something so ephemeral and unsatisfying. Of course, Antonioni never comes up with a viable replacement for the concept of love—religion is out of sight and out of mind. In later films, he perks up over the prospect of trips to Africa or the desert, but gives up on that in his masterpiece, The Passenger. Later on, he suggests that space travel could be pleasant. Antonioni’s motto might be, “Anywhere but here.”
In this first film, Antonioni ignores the verbal overload of the script (which boasts far too many writers) and concentrates on evoking states of mind through visuals. The feeling you get from his films, from Cronaca through to Beyond the Clouds, is similar to the feeling Ozu evoked in his lyrical lulls between scenes. But Antonioni’s observation of empty rooms and deserted streets is weirdly sexualized and usually despairing. This gloom he creates is very stimulating, very intellectual, and sometimes close to suicidal in its self-pity. When Paola and Guido first meet, they drive to the beach and then meander over to some stone bleachers near the sea. As they sit, the imagery powerfully gives you a sense of lostness, of time gone by, of lack of meaning, of longing for meaning. All in a single shot.
Money and sex are intertwined; Paola’s husband jokes that a colleague of his wanted to buy her for 180,000 lira. At an auction for “war cripples,” Paola purchases a dress, and the model strips it right off, standing in her black underwear and handing it over (listless Paola tells the girl to keep it for herself). In the film’s most complex shot, Paola’s husband drives through two enormous freestanding cardboard liquor bottle advertisements. He’s testing out one of Guido’s Maseratis (Paola wants her lover to have some money). It’s an incredible image, but difficult to make sense of. After watching the Maserati disappear into the distance, Guido gets into his car and engages in a hungry make-out session with Paola. “I’m tired of feeling alone,” she says. Antonioni soon cuts to them sitting back in their seats, staring straight ahead, bored to death. This is not difficult to judge: it’s a classic example of what Andrew Sarris called “Antoni-ennui.”
These two want to take action, but they never get relief, just guilt and increasing lassitude. They want their lives to be like a movie. Paradoxically, they are literally a couple in a movie, but Antonioni rips apart cinematic conventions and lets shapeless life pour in, controlling the subsequent mess with his masterful mise-en- scène. In the final sequences, Paola runs around the dirty streets in a gown with a frilly white skirt, the dress trailing behind her absurdly through the dark. The “scenes” of her drama are deliberately unsatisfying, but in an image like this she is transformed by Antonioni’s stony, discreetly randy gaze. The unsurpassed beauty of Antonioni’s visual art lifts his two-penny story and hollow people into the exalted realm of the senses; it’s a noir dissolved and re-made into existential poetry.
The digital restoration of this film is phenomenal and a cause for rejoicing. The print of Cronaca run at the Anthology retrospective of Antonioni's work years ago was probably the worst print I've ever seen of any movie, so riddled with visual defects that it was unwatchable. On this sumptuous DVD, the melancholy, Marcel Carné-like grays stand out with all kinds of detail and gradation. There's barely a speck on the image. The awful sound has been as cleaned up as it possibly can be.
There are lots of nice special features, courtesy of No Shame Films, a new label dedicated to rare Italian cinema: "Restoring a Masterpiece" takes us through the film's painstaking restoration process. "Story of Peculiar Night" chronicles the restoration's premiere in Rome, with Antonioni and Lucia Bosé in attendance. The maestro is silent, felled by strokes, but his eyes are alert. After the screening, Bose is asked what she thought of the film. Strangely blue-haired and aged, she was obviously taken aback by her youthful lusciousness. "But you've got to change a little now and then," she confides, touchingly. "Identification of a Masterpiece" is an exhaustive talking-head movie that runs 113 minutes, featuring the assistant director, Francesco Massilli, and several Italian film critics pondering the film. "Fragments of a Love Affair" has Massilli revisiting the locations of Cronaca.
A fantastic package of an essential and rare Antonioni feature, surely one of the best DVDs of the year.