Screen shot courtesy of If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, Tom Sutpen's great blog.
Women in photos. Women in windows. Women all around Niccolò in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman. A filmmaker and a divorcee, Niccolò falls in and out of relationships on his quest to discover the woman – his ideal conception of the opposite sex. He’s searching for a woman who’ll play the lead role in his next film as well as satisfy his sexual desires. Niccolò meets not one, but two women: the brusque, upper class Mavi and the salt-of-the-earth actress, Ida. With both, however, Niccolò’s projections do not correspond with the actual relationships.
Antonioni handles the great divide between man and woman with a more subdued, streamlined technique than his previous works, yet he still retains a narrative opacity (women are never “identified,” per se, and relations dissolve without finite reasoning). Heavy on interior shots of apartments, mansions, summer houses, Antonioni films his characters in a constrained, (over-)developed Italy (Gone are the partially constructed skyscrapers seen in L’Eclisse.), cut off from nature. This is a sheltered, banal, and paranoid Italy, where the elite -- Mavi’s crowd -- gather in the cavernous rooms of a mansion, eye-balling Niccolò, the stranger intruding on the party.
Niccolò’s detachment carries over into his love life. A professional side effect, he remains a few steps removed from intimacy, moving towards glacial observation, which ultimately dissolves his relationships. It happens with Mavi. It happens with Adi. And one could imagine that it happened with his ex-wife.
This meet-connect-break-up schema plays out in Identification like twin narratives laid back-to-back. Relationships start serendipitously: Niccolò encounters Mavi over the phone while visiting his sister – a gynecologist. The glimpse of Ida at a theatre performance ignites his interest in her. Niccolò and the women mine their connection, going over to each other’s homes, going on trips. But then, an inevitable decline and dissolution occurs between Niccolò and the women. In the film then it’s meet, retreat, repeat.
What triggers the break-ups? It’s hard to say – Mavi’s abandonment and Ida’s pregnancy? Maybe. The beginning of the end perhaps occurs when Identification breaks out of the closed quarters of the civilized world and into the natural one.
Divisive at the time it screened at festivals, both UK and US critics attacked the film, firing that old qualm at Identification – a film with style but no substance. Writing for The Spectator, Peter Ackroyd, for instance, called Identification “…a picture that offers an extraordinary visual surface, but one in which is troubled by a certain irresolution or inconsequence.” Besides being chided for its lack of significance, some blasted the film for its hit-you-over-the-head obviousness. “Predictably, Antonioni positions his actors in a thick fog at least once – catch the metaphor?” Edward Guthmann wrote during Identification’s US theatrical premiere.
Yet look at this set piece, of Niccolò and Mavi driving through a dense wall of grey: the caution light that blinks a dot of yellow amid the monochrome color; the panel truck that emerges like a phantom; and the orange glow that surrounds Mavi’s head as she lights up a cigarette to calm her nerves.
The scene plays out again with a different landscape later on. In a small boat, Niccolò and Ida drift beyond Venice, into a lagoon. Cut from civilization, it’s in these big scenes where nature turns supernatural, a public yet private space, which these relationships upend. It’s only man, woman, and their environment – alone. The elementary situation causes a rift, a perspective to shift, leading to downfall. The melancholy seeps into them, priming them for separation.
In the US, Identification was an unfortunate casualty of criticism. Antonioni’s film played at the 1982 New York Film Festival. Vincent Canby’s review eviscerated it, squelching Identification’s chance for distribution. From what I gather from my research, the film never had a proper theatrical release until 1996.