Beyond the Clouds
Coe, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)
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. …