Wednesday 9 February 2011

Creatures of the screen let loose

The Antonioni Project, Barbican, London

Is love a luxury? It’s hard not to think so when these three entwining romances, none of which sail plainly, are suddenly punctured by the world’s harshest realities: landfill and famine and hurricanes and explosions and excruciation. The images rip through the escapist narratives like shrapnel through flesh. Afterwards, it’s almost impossible to return to fantasy.

That may well sound crude – and, indeed, it is – but these images of pain and hardship also serve to illuminate the self-centric bubble of Michelangelo Antonioni’s world. Its populace are wealthy. They go yachting and clutch champagne flutes. Here, desire boils down to desirability. People are commodities. Women flit coquettishly, their sheeny dresses catching the light like diamonds on display. Across the room, men make eyes like magpies.

Director Ivo van Hove splices together Antonioni’s so-called Alienation Trilogy of films, each of which takes aim at the moral vacuum of this material world. In L’Avventura, a man searches for his absconded partner, falling in love with her best friend en route. La Notte shows a married novelist mid-mid-life crisis, whose head is turned by a pretty young thing at a party. L’Eclisse centres on a rebound relationship between a woman and a flash financier.

It’s as if the three distinct narratives exist in a pressure cooker, forcefully squished together until they become one complex molecule. New bonds are formed between them. The protagonists of one become bit-part players in another. Romantic leads become other woman.

Van Hove achieves this by bleaching them of setting. His set is a vast blue screen studio. Cameras swish past and circle overhead, transmitting the action onto a cinema screen above. At first, backdrops are imposed – cityscapes and bobbing sea – but soon all is amorphous block colours. Not only does the world around them gradually fall awar, each couple exists in the same non-space. They move in the same (concentric) circles and go to bed on the same satin sheets.

The camera, then, is used to delineate between narratives that have melded together. Its purpose is primarily functional and, while it allows van Hove to fiddle with the relationships, its usage lacks the artistry to leap into the breathtaking. He’s able to suggest films inside films, whereby an entire fully-fledged narrative can seem the absent thoughts of another’s protagonist, but there’s not the sense of dichotomy between the image and its construction that Katie Mitchell’s onstage camerawork achieves so beautifully. Yes, the gaps inbetween are made concrete – gazing off-screen into middle distance often results in meeting eyes with another gazing back – but its all a bit straightforward. As a photographer is told within: ‘Everyone can take photos. All you need is a camera’. Van Hove’s cocktail of film and theatre is academic rather than alchemic.

What it does manage is a pure and contemporary alienation effect. That everything is so evidently pretence – not just escapist fantasy, but also remixed and freshly charged – drastically affects our reading of Antonioni’s stories. Like the originals, characters and events seem at once dreamily idealistic and wantonly hollow.

One is never sure to what extent these people are creatures of the screen let loose in three dimensions or aspirants replicating the models of cinema. Again, films exist inside films. Where Antonioni’s vacuum was, perhaps, consumerist distraction, van Hove’s is more absolute and damaging. People become commodities. Marketability is the ultimate goal. Appearance is everything.

In these terms, life becomes a performance and sex, pornography. Being earnest has lost its importance, indeed, it seems a sign of weakness in an ecology of insincerity.

Run over


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