Al di là delle nuvole (1995)

BEYOND THE CLOUDS (Par-Dela Les Nuages)

(director/writer: Michelangelo Antonioni; screenwriters: Tonino Guerra/Wim Wenders/from a story by Michelangelo Antonioni “The Bowling Alley on the Timber River”; cinematographer: Alfio Contini; editors: Claudio di Mauro/Peter Przygodda; cast: John Malkovich (Director), Vincent Perez (Niccolo), Irène Jacob (Soon-to-be-nun), Sophie Marceau (Father Killer), Peter Weller (Roberto), Fanny Ardant (Patricia), Marcello Mastroianni (Artist), Jeanne Moreau (Observer of artist), Kim Rossi Stuart (Silvano), Ines Sastre (Carmen), Chiara Caselli (Olga, Roberto’s Mistress), Jean Reno (Carlo); Runtime: 113; Cecchi Gori Distribuzione / Mercure Distribution; 1995-France / Italy / Germany)

“It is in the enigma of what it is the lovers want or why they are compelled to want certain things that makes this a fascinating film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Beyond the Clouds” is an episodic film containing four short stories by Antonioni—all about his fascination with women, desires, and sex. It has a cast of attractive and famous stars. It was a box-office hit in Europe, but is a film that has received very little notice in America. It is his first film after ten years of silence because of his massive stroke, which left him partly paralyzed — preventing him from speaking. It is a return to form for the 83-year-old master, even if it is hard to imagine how he directed while under such a handicap. In this, his last film ever, he is still able to put his recognizable signature of post-modern style on the work (now considered old-fashioned)

There is a quiet and easy pace that allows the stately film to be properly absorbed as a meditation exercise comparing the similarities of the spiritual, erotic and aesthetic world, and could be viewed by many as an end of an era work that is both enthralling and bound to rub some the wrong way for its politically incorrect moments. But to just ignore this film and give it no venue to be shown, is a slap in the face of one of the world’s greatest directors. I thankfully got a chance to see it on the Sundance cable channel.

Wim Wenders is around to connect the dots in the stories, direct the opening airplane prologue and the epilogue (his filming style is noticeably flat when compared to Antonioni’s). He is on the set to possibly sub for Antonioni if his health would have failed. Robby Muller, Wenders’ noted cinematographer, is also around to help out with shooting some of the scenes.

The film has the appearance of being pretentious because the stories all appear slight and the voiceover by Malkovich doesn’t seem to add much flavor to the stories. Yet it isn’t pretentious. There is an intensity about the way the master’s camera captures the stories that gives his silence and his sometimes unpleasant sophomoric dialogue an opening for ideas to be filtered through, making the sheer beauty of the mise en scene something not less than breathtaking.

John Malkovich plays Antonioni, a director traveling around Italy and France looking for characters and ideas for a film. Explaining what he is about as a director, Malkovich lays it on thick by stating: “I only discovered reality when I began to photograph it.” He further muses, “The only thing I do in my films is try to discover what’s behind the photographs.”

The first story is about a chance encounter in a small Italian town of Ferrara (Antonioni’s hometown), where a city technician named Silvano (Kim Rossi-Stuart) goes to escape his restlessness and meets the love of his life by chance, the attractive, slender small town schoolteacher, Carmen (Ines Sastre), who is staying at the same hotel. The two beautiful, modern people spend the night in the ancient town unable to sleep in their separate rooms after getting to know each other, with her expecting him to come to her room. But failing to make love with her that night because of his pride or folly, or because of the folly of the city as the narrator says; two years go by before he sees her again even though he now lives in Ferrara. He goes to her apartment and this time only caresses her naked body by not even touching her but hotly following the path of her nipples and lips with his hand held over her. He does not make love to her even though they are mutually attracted to each other, preferring instead to have her perfect love live unsullied in his imagination.

In the second story, which is told in English, the wandering director, Malkovich, stares intently at an attractive shop lady’s legs (Sophie Marceau) as she bends down to decorate a window display. She reminds him of someone she is not sure of and so she responds to him when she spots him stalking her, and finds the need to awkwardly blurt out to him that she stabbed her father to death 12 times and got acquitted. The two make love, but casually depart as they can’t seem to make a more demanding connection. Malkovich is thinking of how he could use her for a film he is making, while she fails to explain why she killed her father or anything significant about herself. The beauty of this mysterious story is in the color and texture of the seacoast town of Portofino that is captured and the marvelous shade of colorings it gave to the story.

In what might be considered the main story (Antonioni’s book had 33 short stories), a transplanted New Yorker in Paris, Roberto (Weller), is approached in a cafe by an Italian woman Olga (Chiara Caselli) who has a need to tell him a story of porters in Mexico, who walked so fast they lost their souls. This leads to a three year relationship as he neglects his attractive wife Patrice (Fanny Ardant), who bitterly says “Love is an illusion.” When she asks him to choose one or the other, he tries to choose both as he lies and tells her she is his choice. She leaves and takes their furniture to go to the luxury apartment of Carlo (Jean Reno), who neglected his wife because of his job and finds when he returns from a business trip that she moved out the furniture to live with her lover and placed the ad in the paper that brought Patrice to rent the apartment. Again the beauty in the story, as in all the tales, is in the photography. It shows this mod apartment surrounded by the icy steel colored interior, filled only with a black leather lounge chair and a piece of art valued only as a decoration piece. This visual scene tells you more about the couple than words could ever have. On the surface, the story appears like a conventional bedroom farce.

In the final tale, a love-sick puppy (Perez) follows a friendly young woman (Irène Jacob) out of her building and accompanies her to church in France’s Aix-en-Provence. Perez is trying to hit on her all the time and the more Jacob rebuffs him the more he comes enamored of her, as they share their philosophies. Jacob tells him that she is afraid of life — calling herself a completely satisfied woman with no desires — and that he is her opposite, someone who is afraid of death. When Perez asks what would happen if he fell in love with her, she replies, “It would be like lighting a candle in a room full of light.” When they part at her door and he asks to see her tomorrow, she tells him that tomorrow she will enter a convent. The beauty in this piece is in comparing spiritual love with physical love–in hearing the church mass and the angelic singing and heartfelt prayers of the worshipers, which the would-be lover sleeps through.

There is also a light comic scene which seems to be thrown in as a joke at the director’s expense, as the late Marcello Mastroianni is an artist on a country hillside copying a Cezanne masterpiece and Jeanne Moreau is laughingly mocking him for not trying to do his own thing. They seemed to be having fun with their small parts, as Mastroianni was trying to convince her that by following a genius he might pick up the same inspirations. The two appeared together in “La Notte,” Antonioni’s 1961 film.

All four stories are about sexual encounters between strangers coming together, with the first and last story being about failed romances; while in the second and third, even though the love making seemed mechanical, they did get it on. In none of the tales, is there an easy explanation for what attracts them or prevents them from being lovers. It is in the enigma of what it is the lovers want or why they are compelled to want certain things that makes this a fascinating film. The power of Antonioni’s work rattles under the skin and he doesn’t help by giving out any answers. He lets the viewer determine if it is easier to go after what one desires no matter or for one’s desire to remain unfulfilled and for one to make the best of it. This a work of great care and imagination, an erotic film that moves modern cinema closer to the edges of pornography than it would care to admit; and, it leaves room for many ways to look at love that have not been fully explored, which might be the baton he is passing on to the younger directors.