Video Essay: The Existential Noir of Michelangelo Antonioni


With the Noir City Film Festival in full swing in San Francisco, we felt it was the right moment to revisit the doomed romance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s  Story of a Love Affair. Though Antonioni is best known as the Italian master of art cinema, his first film, Story of a Love Affair, was fashioned after ’40s Hollywood films noir like Double Indemnity, Shadow of a Doubt and The Naked City. See this video essay to get a sense of what noir Antonioni-style looks like.

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When one thinks of the films by the modernist Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, one doesn’t normally think of film noir. But his first feature falls well within that category. Made in 1950 at the height of the noir era, Story of a Love Affair begins with a classic noir opening scene, a private detective in an office, scanning photos of the woman he’s been hired to investigate. But as we learn more about his target, the story spends more time with the woman and the lover from her past, and their shared history, involving a possible murder that haunts them today.

The Story of a Love Affair doesn’t look like a film noir. It lacks the shadowy expressionist lighting of classic noir. Several key dramatic scenes are shot in broad daylight, with a sense of naturalism that harkens to Antonioni’s background in neorealist documentaries. But that doesn’t mean the film lacks a noir feeling. The darkness and instability that are usually conveyed through noir’s expressive light and shadow are more internalized in the characters, and reveal themselves through subtle shades in body language. It’s an existential noir that the characters carry inside their everyday lives.

Perhaps the most expressive quality of this film, one which provides its emotional core, is its camera movements. There are 21 shots that are over one-minute long, half of them involving the lovers, in scenes that take on the elaborate choreography of a dance. Sometimes the camera tracks in a circular path across a room, as characters move from foreground to background and back, showing off Antonioni’s gift of combining deep staging with his camerawork. But the common feeling through all of these shots is a sense of restlessness and futility for the characters in trying to stay one step ahead of fate.

The most remarkable of them is a three minute single take that pans 360 degrees across a bridge, which the camera surveys with the lovers as they make their plans for a murder. Again, Antonioni plays with the expressive qualities of space, drawing them closer as they make their preparations, then pushing them away as their emotions boil over. The camera’s wide angle always keeps the expansive, barren background in plain view. At first it offers them a safe haven to plot their scheme, but by the end it projects a spiritual landscape of emptiness. With these long takes, Antonioni’s camerawork and staging bring a musical ebb and flow to the drama, even as they ultimately lead to a dead end for this doomed love affair.

Kevin B. Lee is a film critic and video essayist who contributes to Roger and IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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