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Sophie Marceau : Movie : Al di là delle nuvole

Title : Al di là delle nuvole
Al di là delle nuvole
Click image to enlarge
Year : 1996
Role : The Girl
Director : Michelangelo Antonioni & Wim Wenders
Language : Italian / English / French

(New Statesman, Jan 10, 1997 by Jonathan Coe)

This week sees the release of two films which are both, in very different ways, concerned with the process of investigation, peeling back deceptive surfaces to worry away at the reality underneath. Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Space, like his earlier film London, uses a combination of quasi-documentary footage and deadpan narration to examine the state of contemporary Britain. Michelangelo Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds - his first film for 15 years - offers a collection of four short stories based on the premise that 'beneath the image lies another more faithful to reality, and beneath that one lies another, and yet another, until we come to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality which no one will ever see.'

I have to say that in Antonioni's film, I found the relationship between this epigram and the stories themselves rather oblique, to say the least. Beyond the Clouds is based upon a collection of the director's short fiction called That Bowling Alley on the Tiber, each episode revolves around a thwarted relationship or sexual encounter, from a couple whose passion for each other is so strong that they won't contaminate it with sex, to a young man who has the misfortune to conceive an overwhelming desire for a woman just as she is about to enter a convent.

The settings of these stories range from Portofino to Paris, while the cast is even more cosmopolitan and outlandishly stellar: Fanny Ardant, Irene Jacob, Sophie Marceau, Peter Weller, even Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau. The latter, reportedly, did not meet Antonioni on the set, because her scenes were directed by Wim Wenders, who is responsible for all the framing episodes which draw the film together, Wenders' assistance being necessary because Antonioni himself has been incapacitated by a stroke for the last ten years. Given that he is now half-paralysed and unable to speak, the greatest miracle about Beyond the Clouds is that it was made at all.

It would be easy enough to write if off as an old man's film (and a ruefully detached old man, at that). In its languid pacing, for instance, its unapologetic preoccupation with favourite themes (chance, alienation) and its queasy partiality for young, naked, female bodies, it reminded me of another great director's near-swansong, Hitchcock's Frenzy. Two other factors contribute to its slight whiff of jaded prurience: the omnipresence as narrator and surrogate Antonioni-figure - of John Malkovich, an actor now typecast as the very embodiment of hooded, reptilian sexual appetite; and the dippy music (much of it provided by U2), which comes across like the soundtrack of a soft-focus porn movie. The scene in which Malkovich and Marceau writhe on the bed together to an instrumental version of Van Morrison's 'Have I Told You Lately' would be a low-point in any director's career.

And yet there is something distinctly memorable and affecting about this film. I think whatever power it has resides in the last story - the one about the woman entering a convent - and derives not simply from the beauty of Irene Jacob, but from the rapport between that beauty and Antonioni's camera. In a film that is top-heavy with pretentious voice-over narration, and in which the dialogue is stagily rather than purposely artificial, the rapturous instant when we glimpse Jacob praying in church feels like a sudden flicker to life. 'The problem,' Antonioni once said, 'is to catch a reality which is never static, is always moving towards or away from a moment of crystallization.' Here, just for a few seconds, he catches it with something of his old genius.

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