What do you think of when I bring up the name of legendary Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni? For me, brooding long takes, beautiful women lounging with a glazed look in their eyes, and conversations pondering the contradictory mess of human nature all come to mind. These hallmarks were made famous in his trilogy on modernity and discontent (L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse), three films that cemented Antonioni’s mood and remain profoundly influential. While he began to establish these concepts in his pseudo-noir feature film debut Story of a Love Affair, some Hollywood and neo-realist twists result in a strange mix of style and tone that is sometimes confused, but still recognisably Antonioni.
The film opens in classic noir style: pictures of a girl named Paola are thrown onto a table as we’re told that she’s more than meets the eye, her wealthy husband wanting to uncover her mysterious past. But instead of a movie like The Lady From Shanghai, we don’t stick with this detective for long, and eventually leave him behind as we find ourselves embroiled in Paola’s history and her latent love affair with ex-fling Guido. Though the layers of noir convolution remain, the plot is less about uncovering motivation, and more about the characters coming to terms with what their motivations are – like most Antonioni characters, Paola and Guido never seem to quite know what they want, and the detective’s investigation can only go so far when the goal isn’t tangible.
This carries over to the aesthetic of Story of a Love Affair, which borrows far more from the Italian tradition of neorealism than it does from the expressionism of Hollywood noir. Most conversations are shot (in true Antonioni style) in long takes and wide shots with subtly sweeping camera movements, giving an impression of realism that is difficult to replicate through quick cutting. While glimpses of his later style shine through via evocative transitions and the empty beauty of the mise-en-scene, it feels as though he was being tied down to a certain style here, not fully utilizing his own artistic voice. Similarly, many of the actors were, at that point, non-professional, a decision that I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about – with some of the performances feeling somewhat stilted, especially as the script relied so heavily on complex conversations and emotions – and watching an Antonioni film without many recognizable faces is an odd experience. Nonetheless, this nod to Rossellini’s school does put the themes of the film into an interesting context, particularly regarding Paola as a femme fatale; the events of the ending mean that the moral ambiguity is never truly resolved, as it so rarely is in real life.
As anyone familiar with The Bicycle Thieves would know, the aesthetic of Italian neo-realism holds many connotations beyond just verisimilitude, and seeing war-torn parts of Italy in 1950 does add a level of commentary particular to this movement. While Story of a Love Affair seems to primarily be about the impossible, contrary nature of love, the looming overtones of class stratification and loss add an unmistakable layer of pessimism to the film. Though Paola has managed to escape her lower class upbringing through marriage, Guido struggles for money, and this difference of means is depicted as much as a state of mind as it is a physical barrier. For the most part, despite their apparent passion for one another, Paola and Guido just can’t get onto the same wavelength; this modern alienation in a poverty-stricken Italy is as much of a tragedy as the doomed romance itself.
This new Cult Films HD re-release is a must for anyone with an interest in Antonioni, if only to see his fantastic debut in the best possible quality. The painstaking 2K restoration is truly beautiful, and definitely lends a more hypnotising quality to the famous long takes and wide shots. The special features, while nothing groundbreaking, are also likely to interest fans, with several making-of featurettes (one featuring assistant director and co-writer Francesco Maselli) that fixate on the film’s semi-canonized status as Antonioni’s first.
Story of a Love Affair is an odd beast: it clearly falls within Antonioni’s oeuvre, and yet seems held back by insistent associations with other genres. Though this occasionally results in some tonal dissonance, and the convolutions of the plot often get in the way more than they serve the themes of the film, you can clearly draw a line from this to something like La Notte, and it’s definitely interesting to see Antonioni’s trademark coolness in the context of a movement as important as neo-realism. If anything, it only goes to show how brilliant a filmmaker Antonioni is that a film that could be considered the highlight of another director’s career is merely his awkward first feature. I’m unsure as to whether knowledge of Antonioni enhances or damages a first viewing of this film, but regardless, it’s an interesting experiment that succeeds in most of what it sets out to do.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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