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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic. Identification of a Woman


Identification of a Woman (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
Italy: Michelangelo Antonioni, 1982 (Criterion Collection)

1. Identification of a Woman. Antonioni. Why?

2. Michelangelo Antonioni, maker of Identification of a Woman (1982), L’Avventura (1960) and Blowup (1966), one of the great international filmmakers  of the 20th century, is an exemplar of that era of artistic modernism that peaked in the ’60s: the time of Godard, Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, Sartre, Nabokov, Duras, Barthes, et. al., when matter often became more important than matter. So I’ve decided to make this a modernist review. It can be read in two ways: from the top down (Paragraph 1 to 14), or from the bottom up (Paragraph 14 to 1). Or you can make a print-out, tear it to pieces, toss them up in the air, and read it like a William Burroughs cut-up novel. The meaning doesn’t change whether you begin at the end, or end at the beginning, or vice versa. Of course, I could be wrong.

3. Blowup is a movie about a London fashion photographer (David Hemmings) in the Swinging ’60s, who photographs what he thinks is an assignation beween a man and woman in a park. But then, when he blows up the photos and isolates the details, he begins to believe that what he saw was really a murder in which the woman awas an accomplica. She (Vanessa Redgrave) follows him, seduces him. Or vice versa.  He loses the photos and finally disappears. Maybe.
4.  You are invited to skip paragraphs 5 and 6 (or to forget them, if you‘ve already read them) if surprise is what you are looking for. You will not find it in this movie, or in this review, at least the first time you read it. Anyway, you already know that this is an Antonioni film, from the director of those melancholy modernist cinema classics Il Grido, L’Avventura, La Notte, L‘Eclisse, Red Desert and Blowup, so some of you are probably sure already that Identification of a Woman will end disturbingly. No surprise there. No need for any Spoiler Alerts. So you might as well read on. Or not.

5. “My love is nothing like the sun,” Shakespeare wrote in one of his finest sonnets: a classic statement of what beauty is, and isn’t — and of what love is, and isn’t. In  Identification of a Woman, a handsome, intellectual motion picture director of few words named Niccolo (Tomas Milian) tries to recover from a broken marriage while moving in elite social circles in Rome — and drifting, drifting. Niccolo has two love affairs during the story: one with a promiscuous bisexual society woman named Mavi (Daniela Silverio), the other with an earthy gorgeous young actress from the working class, named Ida (Christine Boisson).

6. Both of Niccolo’s affairs end badly, partly because of other people, partly because of Niccolo himself: because of his sealed-off emotions, his ucertain commitment, his probable promiscuity, the way he seems separated not just from his ex-wife, but from other people in general. Niccolo and Mavi quarrel, get lost in the fog (in a great scene reminiscent of a similar fog of fear in Red Desert), one night while driving. There are shots, alarms, a mystery. He loses her. Later, he travels to Venice with Ida and she surprises him with a revelation. He loses her as well. He dreams of another film he might make: a science fiction tale about a spaceship speeding toward the sun. A film like Solaris, by Andrei Tarkovsky? Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick? Like Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, by Robert Parrish? Or like L’Eclisse (Eclipse), by Antonioni?

7. The script for Identification of a Woman, was co-written by Antonioni with his frequent collaborator Tonino Guerra and also by Roman Polanski‘s frequent co-writer Gerard Brach. Brach was an agoraphobic who rarely left his Paris apartment, and that’s probably one of the reasons that his films with Polanski (Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, The Tenant) seem so claustrophobic, and why they deal so often with people trapped in their apartments, or on an island, or in their own psyches. Identification of a Woman is a film of apartments too, and of failed relationships, of rooms that imprison, of lives full of anxiety, and when Niccolo is outside, pursuing his two affairs, the sense of imprisonment is often just as strong as when he’s inside, trapped.

8. Niccolo’s lovers Mavi and Ida, the playgirl and the actress, are both roles that might have been played, in the ‘60s by Antonioni‘s stunning blonde actress-mistress-star Monica Vitti, who played neurotic women (euro-neuros?) for him in L‘Avventura, La Notte, L‘Eclisse, Red Desert — and also in The Mystery of Oberwald , the experimental film that he adapted from Jean Cocteau’s play (and movie) The Eagle with Two Heads, which Antonioni made for Italian TV two years earlier in 1980. His women tend to run together. So do these affairs. Yet Identification of a Woman is far more sexually explicit and candid than his great early 60s films, where eroticism was the pulse beneath the skin, but shown more discreetly and sparingly. It’s not as frank, or as nude, as his episode in the three-part film Eros (the other directors were Wong Kar-wai and Steven Soderbergh), an Antonioni short that sometimes looks like soft-core pornography. Antonioni was 92 when the film came out. He was 70 the year Identification of a Woman was released. And he could speak.

9. In 1985, when he was 73, Antonioni had a stroke, was partially paralyzed and afterwards unable to speak. He went on making films though, with on-set support by fellow directors like Wim Wenders (Beyond the Clouds) — who was there to take over if Anotonioni collapsed. He still co-wrote his scripts. His characters never talked all that much anyway. Instead, they took walks, They searched for something they couldn’t find. They made love. They are, we can see, in a state of angst, of alienation. “Alienation” was the word almost every intellectual film critic used when discussing Antonioni‘s ‘60s films.

10. Tomas Milian, Antonioni‘s star in Identification of a Woman, was born in Cuba and settled in Italy, where the director Mauro Bolognini (Il Bell’Antonio) discovered him and made him a movie star. Milian doesn’t look like Antonioni, who has the face of an artist and aristocrat, an alienated man. Milian looks tough, moody, somewhat like a less disturbed version of Gian Maria Volonte (the star of Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and Leone’s For a Few Dollars More). In the ‘60s and ‘70s, like Volonte, Milian was one of the stars of Italian “spaghetti Westerns”: the form mastered by director Sergio Leone and his American star Clint Eastwood. Eastwood never worked for Antonioni, but he did act for Vittorio De Sica, which seems an even odder match-up, in 1966‘s Le Streghe (The Witches) in the episode A Night Like Any Other.

11. Michelangelo Antonioni was Italy’s cinematic poet of the malaise of the upper and upper middle classes — and Identification of a Woman, which he made in 1982, may have been his last great film. He was a supreme modernist, an architect who became a master of the architecture of cinema and desire: of visual forms, of place, of eroticism, of ennui. Making this film, in collaboration with writers Gerard Brach and Tonino Guerra and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, setting it in a contemporary world of filmmakers and their lovers, he became more obviously personal, cut to the core of his vision: a stunning view of a world full of beautiful objects, beautifully framed — the people included — in a vision that may also be trembling on the edge of an abyss. Or of plunging into the sun. (Science fiction.) I didn’t always think this. When I first saw Identification of a Woman, in New York City in 1982, I was disappointed. Life disappoints you, but you can always change your mind about a movie.

12. This review can be read in one of two ways — either backwards or forwards, either from the first paragraph to the last, or from the last paragraph to the first. It is dedicated to the memory of Alain Robbe-Grillet (screenwriter of Last Year in Marienbad), whose novels and films were modernist traps, and to William Burroughs (author of “Naked Lunch”), some of whose novels could be cut up and re-arranged and read in a new order, and to Stanley Kubrick, of 2001: A Space Odyssey, my favorite filmmmaker when I was in college. Read it any way you like. Or not.

13. Antonioni. Identification of a Woman. Why.

Extras: Trailer; Booklet with essay by John Powers and an interview of Antonioni by Gideo Bachmann.
Identification of a Woman (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
Italy: Michelangelo Antonioni, 1982 (Criterion Collection)

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon